FIELD & STREAM MAGAZINE - 7/28/10 Best Wild Places

Jul 28, 2010

"Best Wild Places: Exploring the Outlaw Triangle"

Senior Editor Colin Kearns and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days exploring what’s at stake in the battle for water in the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the consequences of irresponsible drilling for oil and gas in Wyoming’s Little Mountain region. Here’s what they found on day one.

Our Cessna 210 races down the runway. The wings catch air, the vessel climbs, and we fly toward a dropoff, which, I’ve been told, is sheer and deep. The instant we shoot past the edge, the view briefly silences the six of us inside the cabin.

Hundreds of feet below, the Green River cuts through a vise of red canyon walls. Rafters are already coasting down the current. Fisherman are launching drift boats, getting an early crack at the thousands of trout that choke each mile of the tailwater. Bruce Gordon, the pilot, turns and floats us over mountains and valleys and plains—an endless landscape, even from the view up here—and we spot elk and antelope and one very large mule deer buck. As we survey the country, the words Teddy Roosevelt spoke upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time come to mind: Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.

Granted, this is not the Grand Canyon. But it’s still a special place: the Outlaw Triangle. Land where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once hid from men with badges. Land rich with wildlife and wild scenery. Land that should be left as it is, but could very well be marred if some get their way. Land that Field & Stream and Trout Unlimited selected as the second stop on their Best Wild Places tour.

Along with a TU crew and other outdoor writers and photographers, I’ll spend the next three days here. Together, we’ll fish, explore, and learn about the conservation concerns that threaten this land.

For the moment though, all I can think about is this view. So I look down.

***

After the flight, we fished the A Section of the Green. I boarded a drift boat with Dave Glenn, the Back Country Lands Director for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project, and Ryan Kelly, a guide with Flaming Gorge Resort. We couldn’t have been casting for 15 minutes before Glenn secured the first hookup on the dropper half of his hopper-dropper rig. The rainbow looked about 13 inches, making it average for the Green. But it was also bright and strong and anything but average. Shortly thereafter I steered my first Green River trout into Kelly’s net, and this steady action continued for Glenn and I pretty much all afternoon. All of our bites were coming on the dropper fly, so Glenn asked Kelly what kind of fly it was.

“It’s what folks in the Midwest call a ‘crappie jig,’” Kelly said. His delivery was as well-timed as a standup comedian’s, and the line got a good laugh from Glenn and I. Sure enough, the fly was nothing more than some white marabou fibers tied to a small white jighead. The fly imitates fry, Kelly said, which come out at night. But the fluctuating water levels from evening to morning kill many of them, leaving the trout with an easy breakfast. So far, the fly has worked well—but then, the estimated 15,000 trout per mile might have something to do with the productive morning bite.

Yes, you read that correctly: 15,000 fish per mile. That amounts to more than 100,000 rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout in the seven miles of blue-ribbon flyfishing water than run below the Flaming Gorge Dam. Honestly, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the figure, but so far I can’t say I doubt it either. I mean, we’ve already seen and caught a lot of fish—and we’re not even a mile into the float.

Of course, all of this—the trout, the river, the fishing, even the fry—will suffer to a degree I’d rather not imagine if a 560-mile pipeline, proposed by developer Aaron Million, is built. This monstrosity would drain 250,000 acre feet of water annually from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and deliver it to Colorado’s Front Range. That’s roughly 80 billion gallons of water sucked from its source every year.

As a result, the water levels of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Upper Green River—both prized fisheries and vital moneymakers for local businesses—would be significantly depleted. (I’ll get a better idea as to how much so tomorrow when we tour the reservoir.) And as for the stretch below the dam, where I’m currently fishing, the pipeline would be equally devastating.

Quite simply, the less water that’s in the reservoir, the less water that’s available to conduct flushing flows below the dam—crucial practices that flush the silt and sediment off the river bottom, which can otherwise create an armor on the rocks affecting the aquatic insets, and maintain healthy stream flows and water quality. Even now, with a full reservoir, guides on the Green would prefer to see more of these flushing flows than already take place. So with even less water, it’s safe to assume the flushing flows will become less frequent, causing the quality fishing to drain alongside the reservoir’s water level.

Kathy Lynch, counsel for TU’s Wyoming Water Project, summed it up best—albeit sobering: “The trout would be the first to go.”
And with the trout, you’ve got to think much of the local economy would go, too. Something else I’ll need to explore over the next couple of days.

***

After lunch, we all swap boats. I join Steven Brutger, TU’s Wyoming Energy Coordinator, and Dano Bolton of Old Moe Guide Service. We battle some stiff winds, but Dano still puts Steven and me onto a few fish. As we work our way to the boat ramp, I remember something Brett Prettyman, outdoors editor at the Salt Lake Tribune and one of the writers in our group, said earlier in the day when he was asked for some advice about fishing the river. “Look up,” Prettyman said. The fishing on the Green is so good and there are so many fish, he continued, that it’s easy to forget where you are and miss the scenery.

As we drift downstream, I make it a point to take momentary breaks from the fishing to admire the red canyon walls carved by the Green River. So I look up. —Colin Kearns

Click here to see more photos from day one of our Outlaw Triangle expedition.

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