It all begins with a love of nature for Hank Phibbs, a retired attorney in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Hank's passion for wilderness and his due diligence helped him to reach an agreement with senators, representatives, the US Forest Service, USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) and the Department of the Interior Board of Land Appeals to overturn damaging oil and gas leasing in a part of what is now the Gros Ventre Wilderness in Montana.
Henry “Hank” Phibbs was born north of Chicago in Winnetka, Illinois. His family moved to Casper, Wyoming when Hank was a small child. His love of nature began with his first sight of the Teton Range, and he has done a lot to protect that landscape and others in Wyoming and beyond.
Hank graduated from Dartmouth College and the University of California Hastings Law School, and came back to Wyoming to start his law practice. As a solo practitioner, he took on clients who also cared for the integrity of the land there. One legal case led to a large part of what is now the Gros Ventre Wilderness being preserved. Hank was involved with the founding of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which structured a way for decisionmakers from three states, the federal government, and local entities to integrate policies for the sake of two national parks, seven forests, and several refuges. Now retired, Hank has served as a Teton County Commissioner for the past six years, where he contributes to integrated planning for this beautiful county. Hank and his wife, Leslie Peterson, live in Wilson, Wyoming.
Hank Phibbs: I do have a passionate love of both nature and landscape. And it’s kind of funny, it’s when you’re – some people are born with an ear for music, some people are born with an eye for photography, and for some reason I was born with a passionate connection with the landscape that we inhabit.
Huey Johnson: And you are a lucky fellow. You and your wife live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where we’re sitting at the moment.
Hank Phibbs: We are extremely lucky to be living in one of the most scenic and wildlife rich valleys in the country, if not the world.
Huey Johnson: Your wife is equally active in these things and you’re a wonderful partnership.
Hank Phibbs: We’ve both had the opportunity; she shares the same love of landscape and wild places that I do. We both worked–had the opportunity to work on the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. Through citizens’ efforts, through persistence, and through the attitude that surrender is not an option on this subject, we were able to get a significant amount of additional wilderness put in place in Wyoming to help preserve that landscape over time, and its natural resources.
I have been lucky, I had a law practice that was not… that was involved in helping people start and run businesses, buy and sell property and solve problems. And it was a very pleasurable law practice. Not that there weren’t difficult things to do, but it was very pleasurable. Some of the stories though relate to– because I was in practice by myself and people knew where I came from, I got contacted to do some interesting private, volunteer legal cases.
Huey Johnson: [Unintelligible].
Hank Phibbs: And we did one legal case that ended up with a significant chunk of what is now the Gros Ventre Wilderness being preserved. There’s an area in that wilderness called Little Granite Creek, and the Forest Service had leased Little Granite Creek for oil and gas development. A group of local citizens wanted to protest it so two other people and I agreed to help represent them. And we were fighting Getty Oil Company, along with the Forest Service. As we were going through the process– this is one of those funny moments you’ll never forget. I was sitting in another home late night in the evening—or, in the winter– going through a box of documents, a huge box of documents the other side had sent us in discovery. And I picked up a document and looked at it and had an Eureka moment. It was a thing called a lease suspension letter that the Forest Service had routinely issued and the U.S.G.S had routinely issued. But when you read the letter it said, “This suspension will remain in effect until A), something happens; or, B), the Secretary of Interior decides the leases should be canceled because their development will have unacceptable impacts on wilderness characteristics.” And what that meant was that the Forest Service had a right to say, No. And the U.S.G.S. had a right to say no to oil and gas, and they’d all said they didn’t have that right. So we got to go into the Department of Interior Board of Land appeals and then into Federal District Court into the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, all of whom agreed with us. It flipped the world on its head and said, Oh, by the way, wilderness characteristics are the driving force here and they will allow you to prevent oil and gas development in this particular area. And that area got included in the Gros Ventre Wilderness by the senators and the representatives I was talking about. And for me, it all traces back to sitting there with a huge box of documents just going through them one at a time, doing your due diligence, and all of a sudden, you have a wondrous experience. That was a story from private law practice; it was wonderful.
Huey Johnson: Thank you.
Hank Phibbs: You have to operate with a great passion for those values and with a commitment to carrying those values forward, but you cannot forget fundamental civility. We only progress when we can sit at a table and talk to someone whose views may be completely different from ours in a rational and polite way. And that is the only way to ultimately reach change and reach out to larger segments, is by doing so in a civilized and passionate way.