The Pawnee Buttes oversee a changing landscape

 

Updated 05/11/2012, 4:07 p.m.

You don’t go to Pawnee Buttes in northeastern Colorado by chance. Lonely and isolated, they stand several hundred feet above the rolling and sometimes choppy prairie. They’re nearly an hour’s drive away from an interstate highway, either I-80 or I-76, and it’s nearly that far to the nearest gas station. It’s a fine place for solitude. It’s also a landscape that forces you to look within yourself as much as out. This is Colorado without mountains.
 
I grew up in that landscape. Every few years we would journey to the twin buttes, often with a picnic basket. Pawnee Buttes were wild and vertical, contrasting sharply with the orderly flatness of the sugar beet, corn and wheat fields of my home community. Aided by handholds and a short rope dangled by our father, we youngsters were able to climb one of the two buttes. On a clear day, you could see the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, 150 miles away. For us, this was high adventure.
 
In his book “Centennial,” James Michener recreated these sandstone escarpments into “Rattlesnake Buttes.” They were landmarks to the natives, first Pawnees and later the Sioux, and then guideposts to the settlers. His fictional name implies a place that demanded wariness.
 
No rattlesnakes were evident when I returned to Pawnee Buttes on one of this year’s first days of spring, but I did see changes. This once remote part of the Great Plains is now fully engaged in the new production of energy, both of fossil fuels and of renewable generation. The most flagrant injury has been to the darkness of night.
 
Oil reserves always existed in northeastern Colorado. In my youth, the greener pastures of my grandparents’ neighborhoods had oil-well pumping jacks. Now, because of the evolving technologies and increased prices, drillers have new reasons to bore holes into the Niobrara shale, one of the West’s promising new hot spots. The result is small compounds of equipment and tanks, their existence marked in the night by the flickering orange of flaring methane gas.
 
More conspicuous yet are the wind turbines, red and blinking into the deepening violet of dusk. These, too, have arrived within the last few years. The wind here is rich, raking the landscape with gusto. Like sentries standing guard, the turbines position themselves along the shelf of higher country along the Nebraska and Wyoming borders.
 
Walking along the trails, I was little disturbed by all of this energy development. Bright-green yucca stood out against the drought-dulled prairie. Clumps of buffalo grass glowed a resilient yellow in the late afternoon sun. Unlike the air of the city, which so often ripples with sour aromas, the air here smells neutrally clean. The buttes were, well, butte-i-ful.
 
Pawnee Buttes has never been completely apart from forces of the broader world. Within 15 miles are the decaying remnants of towns created in the 1880s, when a railroad arrived to expedite development of the prairie into agricultural enterprises. Both cattle and plows left their marks, but the latter was the greater misadventure in a region too distant from snowmelt-fed rivers for irrigation and with just 14 to 17 inches of precipitation a year.
 
The town of Keota is a testament to this optimism. Its tower, still standing, once held water imported by rail, plus a bank, school, general store and other features of ambitions for permanence. More than a century later, the commercial miscalculation has become manifest in almost complete abandonment. The decaying brick and mortar is now bleeding into the prairie soil. Permanence was an illusion, as was the supposed wetter climate. Other towns -- New Raymer, Grover and Stoneham -- have had more staying power, though none sell gasoline.
 
More ironic are the high fences and barbed wire that now house the silos of Minuteman missiles and a lot of weeds. Guarded by surveillance cameras, these nuclear missiles were installed in the early 1960s to ensure that we could annihilate the Soviet Union just as completely as the Soviets could annihilate us. Mutual Assured Deterrence, it was called, or MAD, the perfect acronym.
 
My lesson upon returning home to the city is that isolation is never absolute. The Pawnee Buttes have seen the impulses of Manifest Destiny, the Dust Bowl that was a legacy of agricultural overreach, and then the chilling bunkers of the Cold War. This new energy transition is just the latest of changes. Perhaps only the rattlesnakes have stayed constant.
 
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about energy development in the Denver area.

This article has been corrected; originally it referred to the Pawnee Buttes as being located in "northwestern" Colorado, not "northeastern" Colorado.

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].

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