"If this well finds oil or natural gas, then this becomes an oil field a half-mile from the High Uintas Wilderness. This country then becomes an industrial development. It's no longer a natural environment," said Dick Carter, who unsuccessfully fought leasing the North Slope a decade ago as director of the now-disbanded High Uintas Preservation Council. "There is a future for that land. With development, there isn't any future. The most disturbing part is if they don't find anything, these leases will be there as long as they want and they can come back when prices go back up."
The federal government is now obligated to accommodate oil and gas development here since leasing it a decade ago. The decision to auction these lands was made pursuant to comprehensive environmental analysis of leasing the massive range's north slope, according to Paul Cowley, UWC's director of natural resource planning. That environmental impact study was completed in 1994 and incorporated in the forest's 2003 plan revision.
Burnett's proposed exploration well itself is not the primary concern for environmentalists, but rather what would happen should it discover economically recoverable pools of hydrocarbons. Under the forest plan, stipulations are attached to the leases that would ensure the land's nonenergy resources are preserved, officials say.
"If we approve the exploratory well and they hit something and they say they want to develop, we would do additional environmental analysis. If they don't hit anything, we have them rehab the site," Cowley said.
The company proposes clearing an 8.2-acre drill pad in an area that was denuded of its timber in a 1995 clear cut. The spot is at 9,900 feet above sea level about a mile north of the wilderness boundary, on the divide between Gilbert Creek and Smith Fork. It is served by an existing logging road, although Burnett would have to upgrade the last 1.5 miles.
"It will impact the wilderness experience because it's in the viewshed and because of the noise and the smell," said Kevin Mueller of WildEarth Guardians. When Mueller worked for the Utah Environmental Congress, which merged with WildEarth two years ago, he contested the Forest Service's leasing program with Carter and Western Resource Advocates.
"We weren't able to challenge the leases until there was a site-specific application, and that's what this [proposed well] would be. By no means have we given up the legal fight. Our goal is to make it too expensive to develop," Mueller said.
The fight against the new proposal is being led by the Utah conservation group Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, which contends the Forest Service's draft environmental assessment fails to address numerous impacts associated with the project, such as waste disposal, water pollution and harm to wildlife.
"Many other species were considered to be impacted, but in the end, as usual, the agency considers local [wildlife] populations meaningless and just writes off the impacts as if displaced wildlife exist in a world where there is no competition for food and habitat," wrote John Carter, the group's director, in formal comments. "This death of a thousand cuts is evident in all the projects we analyze in the Uintas. The North Slope is heavily fragmented by timber sales, roads and trail."
Burnett Oil declined to make anyone available for an interview.
"We are going to refrain from commenting until we get an approved drilling permit for our well," executive David Rhodes wrote in an email.
Burnett has no operations in Utah, although it did drill and abandon six dry holes in the 1980s, according to state records. The 2,100-acre lease it intends to drill was sold at auction in February 2005 to a man named Richard Horn for the minimum $2 per acre bid, according to federal records. Burnett acquired all the surrounding leases in recent years and "unitized" them into a field known as West Bridger Lake in 2014. These leases would have expired last year, but their 10-year terms were suspended after Burnett filed its drilling application.
Nearly 64,000 acres of the North Slope are under lease, but the area has yet to see extensive oil and gas activity. The only active play is the Bridger Lake Oil Field, located in the Henry Fork drainage just east of the Burnett site. This field was developed in the early 1980s, and only one well continues to pump, yielding about 2,000 barrels per month, according to state records. The operator is Proven Petroleum Inc., based in Lakewood, Colo. The field's remaining seven oil wells haven't produced in years and are either plugged or shut-in, as are its injection wells.
The new well proposal brings back bitter memories for Dick Carter, who retired as a professional conservationist in 2010.
"I'm not happy I didn't win these battles. It's a huge disappointment in my career that I couldn't stop it," Carter said. "Leasing is not a just paper transaction. As soon as you lease that land, you have committed it to development. Elk hunters and backpackers and people who care about this country are the losers."