The Red Desert is one of the few remaining great high elevation deserts left in the United States, and is considered by many the last truly wild place in the west. Within its 6 million acres are towers of sandstone, colorful badlands, slot canyons, and the largest chain of shifting sand dunes in North America. Traces of history still remain from when the desert was an inland sea, and afterwards a spiritual site for the Shoshone tribe, and still later, from when pioneers travelled the Oregon Trail, leaving behind wagon ruts. The Red Desert has a unique ecosystem with astounding biodiversity, part of which is due to the one of a kind Great Divide Basin, which is formed by the Continental Divide splitting and then rejoining, collecting an enormous amount of water. Despite its seemingly barren landscape, the Red Desert is home to 350 wildlife species and over 1,000 plant species. The lakes created by snowmelt throughout the desert provide stopping points for migrating shorebirds, including avocets, ducks, killdeer, willets, ducks, trumpeter swans, snowbirds, and white pelicans. In addition, the largest migratory herd of pronghorn in the lower 48 states and the world’s largest rare desert elk herd roam the desert plains, predominantly in the northern regions. However, a striking increase in oil and gas development could destroy everything that makes the Red Desert wild. Of the 6 million acres, more than 2 million acres are already scarred with a network of roads, pipelines, oil wells, and truck traffic.
In the northern region of the Red Desert lie the Jack Morrow Hills, which have been the subject of heated debate between the government, the Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming citizens, and conservation groups. The outcome of this debate could determine the future of the Wild West. With so much of the Red Desert already consumed by oil and gas drilling, many are holding onto the Jack Morrow Hills as the region where they draw the line. The value of the region is immense, with stakeholders including ranchers, historians, archeologists, birders, hunters, geologists, and many others. Recently, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance conducted intensive field inventories in the Jack Morrow Hills that may have prompted the BLM to recognize 21,010 acres as “lands with wilderness characteristics.” Under the current policy, the BLM has a choice: to protect these lands from industrialization or open them to full exploitation. Hopefully, further studies by the BCA and the Wyoming Wilderness Association will influence the BLM to protect these valuable lands, which are among the candidates for National Conservation Area status. EcoFlight has flown people from both sides of the debate over these areas to increase communication and to advocate for the value of this rare, intact, piece of wild.
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