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Conservation group saves Wyoming forest area

Mead Gruver, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- A conservation group was able to preserve part of a national forest in western Wyoming with an $8.75 million buyout of oil and gas leases secured by last-minute donations, including $750,000 from the founder of online stock broker TD Ameritrade.

The Trust for Public Land was running well short of funds ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline to purchase the development leases near the headwaters of the Hoback River. The gift last week from former investment executive Joe Ricketts helped close the gap.

Ricketts owns a nearby fly-fishing retreat, the Lodge at Jackson Fork Ranch. He previously gave $1 million to the trust.

"This was a nail-biter right up to the very end. It was a wonderful way to ring in the new year," Deborah Love, the conservation group's Northern Rockies director, said Wednesday.

The buyout secures 58,000 acres of leases where Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production planned to drill 136 gas wells.

About 85 percent of those leases are located inside Bridger-Teton National Forest. The rest are on private land.

The conservation group plans to donate the leases in the forest back to the U.S. Forest Service so they can be permanently retired as provided for under the 2010 Wyoming Range Legacy Act.

Several environmental groups including the Wyoming Outdoor Council, American Rivers, Citizens for the Wyoming Range, and The Wilderness Society also were involved in the three-month fundraising campaign.

"It was the kind of thing that warms your heart really when you see how important a place like this is to their community," Love said.

The private land leases underlie two ranches and a subdivision in the Bondurant area and several of those surface owners made donations. In all, contributions came in from about 1,000 people, including many in the Jackson area, she said.

About 250 people attended a Dec. 21 fundraiser in Jackson that featured Wyoming bands and local microbrews. The event raised about $13,000. Another $1,500 came from members of a Rock Springs steelworkers union.

Love on Wednesday identified the effort's single largest donor, who previously had remained anonymous, as Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss.

Wyss, who recently moved to Wilson, gave $4.25 million through his foundation in the early phases of the buyout effort.

"The number of donations and the breadth of the coalition shows just how much support there is for keeping the Hoback as it is today, and open to everyone for hunting, fishing, and hiking," Wyss said through Wyss Foundation spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley.

Wyss also has donated tens of millions to conservation causes in Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah. He aided the 2010 buyout of Montana logging tracts with $35 million.

PXP officials did not return a message seeking comment.

The company took steps while planning the drilling to limit environmental damage by concentrating the proposed gas wells on a handful of well pads.

Still, many remained concerned that the drilling was inappropriate for the headwaters of the Hoback, a federally designated National Wild and Scenic River. The area of rolling mountains and high country meadows is prime wildlife habitat.

The Oct. 4 announcement of the buyout agreement launched the public fundraising work. Company officials at the time described the buyout as a sound business move.