Amid pressure from environmental groups and facing potential legislation from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the U.S. Forest Service denied leasing for oil and gas development in the Ruby Mountains, the federal agency announced on Thursday. The decision signaled a victory for a broad coalition of conservationists, hunters, wildlife biologists and a local tribe who set aside their competing interests to fight the controversial leases that were first proposed by an anonymous speculator in late 2017.
The proposed leases would have allowed for potential oil and gas exploration in about 53,000 acres of land in the Ruby Mountains, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the expansive Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. In addition to being one of the state’s most popular backpacking spots, it is also critical habitat for mule deer and the Lahontan cutthroat trout, Nevada’s state fish, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Humboldt-Toiyabe Supervisor Bill Dunkelberger said in a statement that he made the decision based on an analysis balancing “unfavorable geologic conditions” with wildlife, recreation values and more than 14,000 comments that the agency received in the last year.
“Receiving so many comments shows how engaged the public is with this project,” he said. “Their involvement is critical in getting a firm understanding of what concerns our communities have, what they value, and how our work and decisions can best serve their needs.”
Critics of the decision have 45 days to file a formal objection with the agency.
Outcry to the proposal was so loud and broad that Cortez Masto introduced legislation in February that would ban oil and gas leasing in about 450,000 acres in the Ruby Mountains.
In a statement Thursday morning, Cortez Masto said she would continue advocating for the bill.
“I commend the Forest Service for recognizing what the majority of Nevadans have loudly said: oil and gas drilling has no place in the Ruby Mountains,” the senator said in a statement.
“While today’s decision is a significant victory for the coalition of conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, small businesses and Nevadans who stood up, there is still more we must do to prevent any future attempts to develop these lands for potential oil and gas leasing,” Cortez Masto added. “I will continue to fight in the Senate for the passage of my Ruby Mountains Protection Act¸ which would write into law that oil and gas leasing in the Rubies is prohibited and specifically ensure the protection of those beautiful public lands for generations to come.”
The decision surprised even some opponents of the oil and gas leases. The Forest Service had been poised to open the mountain range to horizontal drilling, according to a draft document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Biological Diversity. That plan — for no surface disturbance — was evidently scrapped for no leasing whatsoever.
“This is a resounding victory for the Rubies and the wildlife that call them home,” said Patrick Donnelly, the center’s state director, said in a statement on Thursday.
Even if the Forest Service had allowed leasing, it was unlikely that an oil and gas project would be developed in the range. Multiple petroleum geologists, including several who are involved in oil exploration, told The Nevada Independent there was little to no oil potential in the mountains. In fact, they said they were surprised a speculator would nominate the land in the first place.
In order to open up federal land to oil and gas leasing, speculators must file nominations with the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees the government’s mineral estate. The Bureau of Land Management, which controls more than 65 percent of the land in Nevada, then conducts an environmental analysis for each nomination. If the proposed leases fall on Forest Service land, then federal forest managers lead the environmental analysis.
There are no fees to submit a nomination and they can be made anonymously, often leaving the agencies with little knowledge about who is proposing a lease. The Ruby Mountain example is reflective of a larger trend in Nevada in which land is nominated where there is little oil potential.
As The Nevada Independent reported in September, the nominations for Nevada oil leases have been criticized by environmentalists, Cortez Masto and even an oil industry lobbyist.