The Red Desert: Wyoming's endangered country

  • Red Desert in Wyoming

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Sand dunes in the Red Desert

    Mike McClure photo
  • Aerial view of Honeycomb Buttes

    Dick Randall photo
  • A pack goat

    Linda Weil
  • The spiderweb of development at La Barge, just west of the Red Desert

    Dick Randall

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 easy.

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 for waterfowl.

Tadpoles in a desert paradise

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 here.

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 westward.

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 endangered.

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" conservationists.

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.

In 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.

Wyoming 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 fail.

"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 poor-wills.

"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 sleeping bag.

"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.

For 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: rock\_springs\[email protected]).

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds