Defending the Red Desert's desolation

  • WILD, FOR NOW: The historic Johnson Ranch with the Wind River Mountains in the background

    Mike McClure
  • Sand dunes in the Red Desert

    Mike McClure
  • Red Desert in Wyoming

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

OREGON BUTTES, Wyo. - "This is what the pioneers saw. This is what Wyoming was," says Mac Blewer, a 30-year-old who works for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, an environmental group headquartered in nearby Lander.

From the top of a sheer-sided cliff, Blewer is looking out over the ocean of sage that stretches through the furrowed badlands and shimmering mirages of southwest Wyoming all the way to the hump of Steamboat Mountain, 20 miles to the south. On this spot, the Continental Divide splits in two to embrace a feature called the Great Divide Basin, which overlaps a 4.5 million-acre section of Wyoming called the Red Desert.

Except for the small dot of Blewer's green Subaru, parked far below us, there is not a sign of a human being in this whole expanse. A pair of prairie falcons knifes through the steady wind above the ridge.

What we are looking at is part of one of the largest natural gas reservoirs in the United States.

"Industry wants in here. They're champing at the bit," says Blewer. A native of the urban East, he followed a woman he was in love with to Wyoming in 1998. The romance did not survive, but by then he had fallen under the Red Desert's spell.

The cold, elevated landscape in front of us hides moonscape badlands, restless sand dunes, a dark volcanic plug called the Boar's Tusk, a rare desert elk herd, and tens of thousands of pronghorn antelope. It is one of the last U.S. strongholds for the dwindling sage grouse, and is also home to golden eagles, burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits, Great Basin gopher snakes, and rare plants like the meadow pussytoes and the large-fruited bladderpod. It contains a buffalo jump, petroglyphs, and odd juxtapositions of landforms that speak to the souls of native Shoshone and Ute peoples.

It is also an historic American landscape. Beginning in the mid-19th century, an enormous tide of immigrants headed for Oregon and California trudged and bumped their way across the pass just behind us. When they caught sight of the Oregon Buttes, they knew they had reached the high spine of the continent and the halfway point in their journey to the Pacific.

A century-long battle

There have been repeated efforts to exploit this sweep of sage and silence. In the 1860s, during the South Pass gold rush, hundreds of mining claims were staked here. In the 1950s, the area was scoured by uranium prospectors, and there have been scattered oil wells since the 1920s. Still, much of the desert looks the way it did a century ago. But the 21st century is coming on strong.

"What's happening in the Powder River Basin is just a precursor of what's going to happen here," Blewer observes.

People have been trying to protect the Red Desert for over a century. One of them was HCN founder Tom Bell, who tried to get the area declared a North American antelope range in the 1960s. But its location in Wyoming - the only state where national monuments cannot be created by the president alone - rules out one of the easiest methods of preservation.

Three years ago, the Bureau of Land Management, which administers most of the area, announced an auction of oil and gas leases in the Jack Morrow Hills, the 600,000-acre expanse before us.

The proposal outraged the Wyoming Outdoor Council, The Wilderness Society and a number of other environmental groups, and the BLM eventually postponed the leasing process until it could write a coordinated plan for the area. But when the document was released last year, environmentalists were dismayed to find that the most protective alternative the agency envisioned closed to development less than half of the area available for lease. (About 20 percent of the total acreage is in wilderness study areas awaiting congressional action.)

The plan brought the largest outpouring of public sentiment the Wyoming office had ever received for a single project - the vast majority of it favoring better protection for the desert.

In the autumn of 2000, a coalition of conservation groups asked Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to consider a citizens' proposal for the Red Desert which would prohibit further oil and gas leasing there. After visiting the area, he ordered the agency to write a new plan that was more conservation-oriented. Several environmental groups are now trying to have the Jack Morrow Hills designated a National Conservation Area. They do not expect much support from the state of Wyoming: Gov. Jim Geringer petitioned Interior Secretary Gale Norton to forget Babbitt's directive last spring. And the Bush administration's coziness with the fossil-fuel industry has environmentalists deeply worried about the desert's future.

There is some cause for hope: The price of natural gas has recently tumbled (see main story), and the Bush Department of the Interior has told the BLM to go ahead with a supplemental plan for the Jack Morrow Hills. The process will include another opportunity for the public to comment.

As the sun begins its descent, Blewer and I walk through a section of the desert called the Honeycombs. Along with Oregon Buttes, it is one of seven wilderness study areas here that are - at least for now - protected from what could become a sea of gas fields.

Inside this maze of wrinkled badland slopes are canyons, caves and gullies in striated shades of terra-cotta, buff and gray. We walk past fossil turtle shells, wild horse droppings and elk tracks. Except for the wind, there is a primeval stillness.

Suddenly, Blewer comes to a decision. "When I die, I want my ashes to be sprinkled here," he says.

I wonder if he will still feel that way 10 years from now.


Lynne Bama writes from Wapiti, Wyoming.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Lynne Bama

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