In southwest Wyoming’s Sweetwater County, turn south off the blacktop of I-80, navigate the web of dirt roads for a few hours and you’ll find it: Adobe Town, with its thousand-foot cliffs, mazes of jagged walls and pinnacles, and cathedrals of stone complete with flying buttresses. The 180,910-acre swath was once home to inhabitants ranging from eight-foot-tall giant ground sloths to Native Americans and legendary outlaws. Now, the state has granted special protection to the area – and as energy development seizes Wyoming, conservationists hope that the feds will follow the state’s lead.
On Nov. 28,
Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Council designated Adobe Town
as “very rare or uncommon,” citing its geologic wonders
and fossils, the crucial habitat it provides for big game and sage
grouse, and its unique history: Adobe Town was a sacred site for
Native religious ceremonies, and Butch Cassidy’s
Hole-in-the-Wall gang stashed their horses here for an escape after
the Tipton train robbery of 1900.
It’s only the
fourth time in the state’s history that the council has used
this designation, which shields the area from the future mining of
non-coal surface minerals, such as oil shale and uranium. However,
for reasons state officials could not explain, the designation does
not address coal mining or oil and gas drilling.
extent of Adobe Town’s protection is currently clear as mud,
because the Rawlins office of the Bureau of Land Management is
rewriting the 4.7 million-acre management plan that includes the
area. Forty percent of Adobe Town was designated as a federal
wilderness study area in 1976, but the BLM’s plans for the
rest of the region – including uranium and oil shale mining,
and oil and gas drilling – may clash with the “very
rare and uncommon” protection.
designations do arise, federal plans trump state wishes. “We
want to avoid that,” says Richard Chancellor, administrator
at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which issues
mining permits. “We’ll get together with the BLM and
try to negotiate both of our desires.” But the state has sent
a clear message to the BLM, says Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist
for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance: “The federal
management plan revision should follow suit and withdraw oil and
gas leasing from the area altogether.”
a clause in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the
BLM is legally bound to do so, says Molvar. As long as a state
designation is made according to federal laws, he says, any
revisions of federal management plans must be consistent with the
But the BLM begs to differ. “The
state’s ‘rare and uncommon’ action doesn’t
affect the BLM’s management of public lands at all,”
says Cindy Wertz, Wyoming’s BLM chief of external affairs.
“On the way to our final management plan, we’ll
evaluate it just like any other form of input.”
agency’s draft plan includes an alternative that emphasizes
the protection of resources and another that is meant to be a
compromise between conservation and industry. But one alternative
fully embraces resource extraction, even though conservationists
say it’s economically unfeasible to open Adobe Town to any
form of industry.
None of the 39 oil or gas wells drilled
within the area have ever come close to being profitable, according
to Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission records;
conservationists also claim that the oil shale deposits have very
low production potential. The energy industry isn’t sure.
“We’re still analyzing the area,” says John
Christiansen, communications manager at Anadarko Petroleum, which
holds leases in Adobe Town.
Despite the uncertainties,
Adobe Town advocates feel that the state’s designation is a
significant step toward permanent protection of what they call
“the Red Desert’s crown jewel.” “The people
of Wyoming have spoken and the state has listened,” says
Molvar. “The ‘very rare and uncommon’ designation
does have teeth.” When the BLM releases its final management
plan in spring 2008, Wyoming's people will see who feels the