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Red Desert rarity

Wyoming moves to protect Adobe Town – but will the feds follow suit?

  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.

The true 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.

If dueling 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.”

According to 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 state designation.

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.”

The 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 bite.