RED DESERT, Wyo. - Fossils of tree limbs were all around, most the size of my fingers, a few the size of horse troughs. Prehistoric bits of turtle shell, horse bones and arrowhead chippings also lay scattered, testimony to the diverse inhabitants who once frequented this ocean-turned-desert.
I suddenly looked up. Our
group had flushed an eagle and I was startled by the beating of its
wings. The Red Desert, the last relatively intact high-elevation
desert in the Rocky Mountain region, stretched out for miles upon
painted miles of browns, greens, reds, yellows, purples; the varied
hues of sands, clays, vegetation and rocks stood out vividly. On
one side of the ridge, wildflowers, grasses and cacti could be
seen; on the other, the gnome-like multicolored formations of the
Honeycombs stared up at us.
I was with members of
the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Wind River Pack Goats and the Sierra
Club on a three-day tour of the Honeycomb Buttes of the Red Desert
in southwest Wyoming. One of our leaders was naturalist John
Mionczynzski, who has explored the area for over two decades. He
would sometimes stop and point out an unusual rock, an edible
plant, or the prominent scars left by an oil rig. Our other guide
was outfitter Charlie Wilson, whose goats made camping
No wild horses were out to greet us, but
that didn't matter. We had seen signs of the place's other elusive
denizens: delicate coyote footprints in the creeks, mountain lion
scat, bones from an owl kill.
We could also see
the beginnings of the Kilpecker Dunes, a shifting sea of sand which
contains ice deposited during previous winters. Whenever the ice is
uncovered, it melts, forming ponds - veritable frog smorgasbords
Tadpoles in a
The desert is anything but
"desolate." The largest migratory antelope herd in the lower 48
roams here, as well as substantial numbers of elk and mule deer.
Some of the highest numbers of raptors in Wyoming soar here, and
there are rare plants and insects, some possibly unknown to
science. Even an occasional moose can be sighted. It seems sadly
fitting that the last truly wild bison in Wyoming reputedly died
It is also historic land. The Shoshone
claimed most of it; the southernmost part is claimed by the Utes.
Pioneers on the Oregon and Mormon trails used desert landmarks such
as the Oregon Buttes to keep them on course during their long treks
This land, one of the last, great
American wild places, is also one of our best-kept secrets. It is
awe-inspiring. It is unique. And it is
That's because it also contains large
deposits of oil, gas and minerals. Extractive industries are
champing at the bit to get in (much of the desert has already been
developed), and only a handful of people are there to stop them - a
few hikers, hunters, ranchers, oil workers and a few "professional"
The Bureau of Land Management
will soon release a Coordinated Activity Plan (CAP) for the Jack
Morrow Hills, a 600,000-acre area within the Red Desert. This plan
will determine where drilling can occur, where more roads can be
constructed and where land can be preserved.
1935, Wyoming Gov. Leslie Miller tried to designate part of the
area as a national park and failed. Efforts in the 1960s by Tom
Bell, the founder of both High Country News and the Wyoming Outdoor
Council, to carve a North American Antelope Range also failed. A
1994 Citizens' Wilderness Proposal recommended preservation for
seven Red Desert areas, including the Honeycombs. The effort went
nowhere. Realistically, this new threat is apt to move more quickly
than any national wilderness legislation.
State Rep. Loren "Teense" Willford, R-Saratoga, recently remarked
that "Wyoming is open for business." For what sort of "business'?
More oil and gas rigs to add to the area's spider web of roads?
Wyoming is as wild as the bucking bronco of its symbol, as
uncontrolled and directionless.
That evening, as
the campfire flickered, these thoughts wheeled through my head like
the bats above us. We try; too often we
"Mac, how about some Scottish tunes?" John
yelled, taking out his accordion. With this group, no one could
stay moody for long. We hummed, philosophized and sometimes just
sat in silence, listening to the coyotes and
"I envy you your deserts - not just
because they are deserts, but because you can afford to keep them
deserts." These words of Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion - which I
had read to the group - haunted me as I shuffled towards my
"Afford to keep them deserts?" I
pray that we can "afford" to keep this one.
Mac Blewer works for the
Wyoming Outdoor Council in Lander, Wyoming.
more information on a plan for the Jack Morrow Hills, contact Renee
Dana, project leader, BLM, P.O. Box 1869, Rock Springs, WY
82902-1869 (307/382-5350, e-mail: