The area is called Grass Creek, and it takes in roughly a third of the Bighorn Basin, ranging from desert to the alpine ridges of the Absaroka Range. It contains spectacular badlands, four wilderness study areas, two rock-art sites and a potential wild and scenic river.
Few people live here, but this lonely country in the shadow of Yellowstone National Park contains thousands of mule deer and pronghorn antelope as well as elk, bighorn sheep, moose, black bear and mountain lion.
Grass Creek also contains 26 active oilfields.
At the hearing, which lasted five hours, some 40 people lambasted the Bureau of Land Management's alternatives. In the front of the room, the plan's authors sat in uncomfortable silence.
The petroleum industry criticized the agency's proposal to protect 17,100 acres of the mountainous Upper Owl Creek region from surface occupancy by their rigs and to impose timing and surface-use restrictions on other lands important to wildlife.
Many worried about losing tax revenue if oil exploration were discouraged by environmental restrictions. "Tourism will never pay the bills in Wyoming," said Bighorn County Commissioner Ray Peterson.
Ranching is only a small part of the local economy, and not all permits are fully used now, area manager Joe Vessels has said. But residents expressed alarm that grazing would be reduced under each of the agency's four alternatives. Rancher Dennis Jones predicted that the agency's plans "would be devastating to the entire Bighorn Basin."
The hearing was a clean sweep for what used to be called the Sagebrush Rebellion. Several people questioned the right of the federal govenment to manage public land in Wyoming at all; others said the plan smacked of collusion between the Interior Department and environmentalists.
William Kraft, of Greybull, said it was a step toward creating "a huge Western park ... that no one will be able to use because it conflicts with nature."
Where were the environmentalists? "We didn't want to send any sacrificial lambs into what was completely a set-up," said Tom Throop, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. Throop said the council, the Sierra Club and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition will send extensive written comments to the BLM.
Wyoming Outdoor Council staffer Dan Heilig added that the BLM showed backbone in proposing three areas of critical environmental concern. But Heilig said he could not understand how all four alternatives in the plan proposed to continue the present practice of leasing almost every acre for oil and gas.
Lynne Bama writes in Wapiti, Wyoming.
For more information or to comment by May 7 on the Grass Creek Resource Area Resource Management Plan and Draft EIS write to BLM, Bob Ross, team leader, Box 119, Worland WY 82401. For the Wyoming Outdoor Council's analysis of the plan write to WOC, 201 Main, Lander, WY 82520 (307/332-7031).