Fate of the Red Desert up in the air

  • RED DESERT RINGS: "Stone Rings near Sand Creek," just east of the Jack Morrow Hills

    Mike McClure
  A new Bureau of Land Management plan could re-open the door to oil, gas and coalbed methane leasing on over 432,000 acres of the Jack Morrow Hills, the heart of southwestern Wyoming’s Red Desert.

The hills are home to a migratory herd of 48,000 antelope, a rare desert elk population, and seven areas being studied for wilderness protection. Half of the land has existing mineral leases, but the BLM suspended development in 1998, while it completed a management plan for the hills’ 574,000 federal acres. In 2000, following citizen protest over the initial plan, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt visited the Red Desert and ordered the BLM to consider protecting the Hills from future leasing (HCN, 11/5/01: Cattle make way for tortoises in the Mojave).

The new plan, released this February, is “the best mix of everything,” says BLM project leader Renee Dana. It advises drilling 46 wells every 5 years, and a case-by-case evaluation of the location and timing of drilling. Dru Bower, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, finds such staged development “problematic.” If oil prices go up, she says, then the industry should immediately be able to develop its leases.

But Mac Blewer, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, says the BLM should halt new mineral development in the Hills, and buy out existing leases. “We are not in a position to compromise,” says Blewer. “Industry has had its way everywhere else in Wyoming.”

The public can read and comment on the proposed plan online at www.wy.blm.gov/jmhcap until May 23, 2003. The final plan is due by the end of this year.
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