STAR TRIBUNE 7-1-17 WY home to some of largest unfenced areas

Jul 1, 2017

Wyoming is home to one of the country's largest unfenced areas. Its future is uncertain.

 

Christine Peterson 307-746-3121, Christine.Peterson@trib.com

RED DESERT – A few narrow dirt roads snake across the landscape, at times the only sign of humans.

They wind from Oregon Buttes, marking the beginning of the promised country for settlers, to Steamboat Mountain, an ancient buffalo jump where early Shoshone tribes herded bison off the rim to their deaths.

Other roads connect undulating waves of white sand at the Killpecker dunes, where families race ATVs, to Boar’s Tusk, an ancient volcanic plug rising from the flats and attracting geologists from around the country.

Lovers of the Red Desert call these special places. Unique areas to be protected and conserved, set aside for another 100 or 200 years for people to witness.

Scattered along the way like branches on a cottonwood tree are smaller roads leading to oil and gas wells, mostly silent in their collection of Wyoming’s economic lifeblood. The Jim Bridger Power Plant is tucked in a basin north of Interstate 80 with four stacks reaching for the sky and an open pit where massive shovels pull coal from the earth.

The Red Desert loosely encompasses about 4 million acres in southwest Wyoming. It can be a forbidding place. Wind gusts routinely reach 50 and 60 mph, winter temperatures settle well below zero and the summer sun bakes indiscriminately. It’s also teeming with life – it’s home to the largest desert elk herd in the country and the longest migrating mule deer herd on the continent.

Right now, much of its future is under review.

The Bureau of Land Management is working on the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan revision. What comes out of the weighty, technical document will be a plan for the next 20 years. It will decide what can be developed and what should be protected.

Wyoming’s Red Desert, one of the last places to dry out after the great seas receded millions of years ago, is many things to many people. It is or has been a place of gold prospecting and horse rustling, oil exploration and hunting, grazing and wild horses. But to understand the interests tugging on pieces of one of the country’s largest unfenced areas is to first understand the people.

Hunting

The Red Desert once teemed with wildlife – thundering bison, wary trophy elk and flighty pronghorn.

And then it didn’t.

Settlers killed all the bison. Ivory hunters took the elk for their valuable canines. Pronghorn and mule deer remained in very limited numbers, said Walt Gasson, a fourth-generation Wyomingite who has hunted in the desert for himself, as a guide or with family for almost seven decades.

But as with the wood duck, Canada goose and golden eagle, humans have worked to repair the damage. Wildlife managers reintroduced elk from Yellowstone National Park and other areas into the desert. They thought they would migrate into the south end of the Wind River Range.

“Instead, they looked around and said ‘looks good to us,’ and they stayed,” he said.

What formed then became the largest desert elk herd in the country and the only one in Wyoming. The experience of chasing a desert bull is so prized today that a resident hunter has about a 2 percent chance of successfully drawing a tag. Yet they keep trying.

“You’ve got these elk and you can see them out there and they can see you, but they use distance as cover, just like antelope do,” he said. “There’s an invisible line, and until you touch that line, they think: I can see you, you can see me, but I’m not going to waste energy by running right now.”

The area is also much more than a hunt, which is why so many people use their one hope of a special elk license on the desert. Gasson calls it the baker’s dozen — the extra. Each hunter has a chance to see a soaring eagle, flock of sage grouse or petroglyph or find an arrowhead.

“The sage grouse and wild horses and pioneer experience and Native American presence creates those extras,” he said. “Those make that part of the whole thing.”

Developing

Pull out a map of development in the Red Desert, and you’ll see a scattering of dots in the northeast corner. As your eyes move south and west, the dots become swarms of active wells and land offered up for future drilling.

Some places, like Adobe Town, south of Interstate 80, have been the subject of intense debate for years – conservationists arguing for its preservation, oil and gas developers promoting its valuable resources.

“I know there are areas that are sensitive out there and unique and pristine, but I also know there is a tremendous amount of energy resource out there,” said Peter Wold, senior partner of Wold Oil in Casper.

Wold’s father had uranium interests in the Red Desert years ago when yellowcake prices were higher. His company now has its sights set mainly on oil and gas development in the Powder River Basin, but he understands the value of energy extraction in the desert.

The BLM’s Rock Springs plan covers about 3.6 million acres, which encompasses the bulk of the Red Desert. It will present, in general, four alternatives to the public for comment. The first would involve little change from what exists on the landscape and is in the planning process now. The other three focus on other possible uses from more conservation to more development. The public will respond, and then BLM will ultimately choose the final plan. BLM will likely present those four alternatives by the end of 2017 or early 2018, depending on staffing in Washington, D.C., said Kimberlee Foster, field manager for the Rock Springs BLM office.

New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has expressed a sense of urgency related to increasing drilling and development. He said “There’s a consequence of not using some of our public lands for creation of wealth and jobs.”

Wold said there can be a balance — and that there has been in the past.

“Like so many areas, you need to be sensitive about where you’re trying to develop energy resources,” Wold said.

History

The Shoshone people named the Red Desert Enga Sogope, or “red earth.” It was a general description for the area, said Jason Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and executive director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center.

It was part of the original Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863, which gave the Shoshone Indians about 44 million acres. Many years ago, the tribes lost most of that 44 million acres, including the Red Desert.

But their mark on the landscape remains for anyone patient or curious enough to look.

A rock used for centuries by Shoshone women to help with childbirth still stands. Ancient campsites, arrowheads and chippings remain in those areas too stubborn to change.

Baldes and his father, an amateur geologist and former biologist, would spend days camping and exploring their ancestral home. Standing on top of Steamboat Mountain, riding on horseback or winding through Adobe Town, he understood his connection to those who went before him.

“It’s important to me personally, recognizing it used to be part of our reservation,” he said. “Just because we are confined to reservation boundaries it doesn’t limit our access to those historical sites we used to utilize.”

He fears development of all kinds in the desert – oil and gas, subdivisions. Anything that further cuts into the open space that remains. Wyoming depends on natural resources, he understands, but he wants a balance for the desert.

“A lot of people don’t recognize it as a beautiful landscape. They see the sage and flat lands and no one is there. They see it as a dead area, but it is very, very much alive and teeming with life if you’re willing to open your eyes and see it.”

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