The landscape in Sweetwater County, to the casual observer on the ground, looks barren and stark. From the air, the true beauty of the landscape stands out, seemingly in perpetual motion.Any opportunity to see the area from the air was offered Monday. The purpose of the Red Desert Ecoflight was “to gather public interest and involvement in the Bureau of Land Management Rock Springs Management Plan revision process, according to BLM Wild Lands Community Organizer Shaleas Harrison.
“(The RMP) is currently underway in the BLM Rock Springs Field office,” Shaleas said. “This land-use plan will direct management for the next 15-20 years for the Rock Springs Planning area, which includes parts of the Northern Red Desert and other adjacent lands such as the Big Sandy Foothills, Little Mountain and Devils Playground.”
The area contains 13 wilderness study areas, a newly discovered mule deer migration corridor and the largest desert elk herd in the lower 48 states, Harrison noted.
The goal of the flight is threefold:
• To educate
• To raise awareness
• To highlight the unique ecological, geological and cultural values “that a wide range of people share in the Red Desert,” Harrison said.
Harrison plans to publish a piece about the flight in High Country News. Dany Hayden will serve as the photographer and video artist on the project. Harrison said Hayden will create a short film that Harrison hopes will be aired to a wide range of viewers at backcountry film festivals and other outlets.
FROM THE AIR
Three flights were scheduled on Monday. Along on the first flight was Ecoflight Pilot Gary Kraft, Harrison, Research Scientist Teal Wyckoff with the Wyoming Geographic Science Center, Director Gary Beauvais of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at the University of Wyoming, and Consulting Geologist and Water Resources Expert Bern Hinckley from Laramie.
While in the air, Hinckley gave a running commentary on the diverse landscape contained within the RMP. Among the areas that were pointed out and discussed during the flight were the Washakie Basin, Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area, Great Divide Basin, Continental Peak, Honeycomb Buttes Wilderness Study Area, Oregon Buttes Wilderness Study Area, Buffalo Hump Wilderness Study Area (also known as the Killpecker Sand Dunes), Sand Dunes Wilderness Study Area, White Mountain and the Red Desert to Wyoming Range migration corridor.
Harrison said the entire area contains 6 million acres of BLM and private lands and rivals Yellowstone in size.
Looking over the undulating landscape, Hinckley said the influence of water on the landscape is apparent. He made particular note of the columnar section of Eocene rocks in the southwestern part of Washakie Basin, which can be seen most clearly in White Mountain along the Rock Springs Uplift.
Beauvais noted much of the vegetation found along the eastern slopes of many of the buttes, such as quaking aspen, is there because snow drifts more readily in these areas. He also pointed out groupings of light spots found in the desertscape. These are prairie dog towns; these areas allow air and water to “percolate” more deeply in the landscape. Loss of these mammals would have a major ecological impact on the area because the prairie dogs not only keep the spread of grass in check but also serve as prey for other carnivorous species.
Flying past Oregon Buttes, Killpecker Sand Dunes and Boar’s Tusk, Hinckley spoke of the beauty and diversity found in the area.
“Everything is rare and unique,” he said. “Wyoming is a jewel globally.”
Beauvais described the area as a broad foothill zone rather than a true plain. He said it is different than other basin ecosystems primarily because of the large migrations of game that move through the area.
Wyckoff said the Red Desert serves as an important winter range for pronghorn and mule deer, and it is important to remember that any development footprint in this critical area disrupts these migration patterns.
“Wilderness study areas have to have some solitude and isolation. Human influence cannot be the main thing in these areas,” she said.
Harrison described a recent study that was done, when scientists Hall Sawyer and Mathew Hayes in 2014 published their findings that identified the longest ungulate, or mule deer, migration in the lower 48 states. The mule deer traveled a one-way distance of 150 miles from the Red Desert to the Hoback Basin and the surrounding mountain ranges of northwestern Wyoming. She noted a disruption on the difficult and long journey would prove hazardous to the deer.
“Their ability to migrate is critical for them to access resources,” she said.
Harrison is eager to get the word out about the RMP revisions. She hopes the flights offer people the opportunity see first-hand the importance and beauty of the area and become involved in the revision process.
“Since the revision process began in 2011, new significant research and BLM guidance for managing and inventorying lands with wilderness characteristics was passed,” she said. “I would like to see the BLM recognize and manage appropriately these new updates. I would also like to see the BLM office in Rock Springs, take a stronger role in involving the public, especially tribes that have historically used the landscape.”
Residents participating in Monday’s flights and discussion included Ailene and John Elkin of Green River. Ailene and her husband got involved because they wanted to be a part of the BLM getting the full picture. She said getting in the air and seeing the variety and grandness of the landscape does more justice to it than looking at a bare spot on a map.
“We really value this area and want it sustained,” she said. “It’s amazing what one small group can accomplish. We can all work together.”
To read more from the Rock Springs Rocket Miner, click here.