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Hoback headwaters

A portion of the Hoback River highlands in Wyoming appears in this photo.   A public campaign by conservation groups and wealthy donors raised enough money to buy out oil and gas leases in the vicinity by a Dec. 31 deadline. 

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 stockbroker TD Ameritrade.

The Trust for Public Land was running well short of funds before a Dec. 31 deadline to purchase the development leases near the headwaters of the Hoback River. The gift last week from Nebraska native and former TD Ameritrade CEO 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. Ricketts has been known for his association with conservative political causes.

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 inside Bridger-Teton National Forest. The rest are on private land.

The conservation group plans to donate the leases back to the U.S. Forest Service so they can be retired permanently 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 in on the three-month fundraising campaign.

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.

Deborah Love, the Trust for Public Land's Northern Rockies director, 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.

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 wells on a handful of 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 a buyout agreement launched the public fundraising work. Company officials at the time described the buyout as a sound business move.

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