By Mac Blewer, Wyoming Outdoor Council
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 2000, Vol. 16, No. 2
Scrambling over what had been a prehistoric forest, I had to stop to catch my breath-too much time behind a desk, not enough time on my feet-still, regardless of my physical conditioning, I couldn't be happier.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC) and the Sierra Club had sponsored a three day citizens' tour of the Honeycomb Buttes of the Red Desert. Our leader was John Mionczynzski, a professional naturalist and occasional NOLS outfitter. John has traveled the area for better than and few know it as well.
He would sometimes stop and point out an unusual rock, an edible plant, or the prominent scars left by an oil rig. Fossils of tree limbs lay all around, most the size of my fingers, a few the size of horse troughs. Prehistoric bits of turtle shell, horse bones and arrowhead chippings also lay scattered, testimony to the diverse inhabitants who had frequented this ocean-turned-desert.
The Red Desert, the last relatively intact high elevation desert in the Rocky Mountain region, stretched out for miles upon painted miles-browns, greens, reds, yellows, purples-the varied hues of sands, clays, vegetation and rocks stood out vividly. On one side of the ridge, vast tracts of sage mixed with wildflowers, grasses and cacti could be seen, and on the other, the gnome-like, multi-colored formations of the Honeycombs stared up at us. No wild horses were out to greet us, but that didn't matter. We had seen signs of the place's mysterious denizens and knew who was here: delicate coyote footprints in creeks, mountain lion scat, bones from an owl kill. We could also see the beginnings of the Kilpecker Dunes, a shifting sea of sand that contains ice deposited during previous winters. Whenever the ice is uncovered, it melts, forming ponds smorgasbords for waterfowl. The desert is not "desolate," as some assert. The largest migratory antelope herd in the Lower 48 roams here as well as substantial numbers of elk and mule deer, raptors, rare plants and insects-some possibly unknown to science. Even an occasional moose can be sighted. It seems sadly fitting that the last truly wild, free-roaming bison in Wyoming reputedly died here. It is also a historic land. The Shoshone claimed most of it. Pioneers on the Oregon and Mormon trails used many desert landmarks such as Oregon Buttes to keep them on course during their treks westward. This land is one of the last, great American wild places and one of our best kept secrets. It is awe-inspiring. It is unique. And it is VERY endangered. Unfortunately it also contains large deposits of oil, gas and minerals. Extractive industries are chomping at the bit to get in (much of the desert has already been developed) and there are only a handful of people who could stop them-hikers, hunters, ranchers, and professional conservationists.
The Bureau of Land Management will soon release a Coordinated Activity Plan (CAP) for the Jack Morrow Hills, an area encompassing 600,000 acres in the desert. It will determine where drilling can occur, where more roads can be constructed, and where land can be preserved. In 1935, Wyoming Governor Leslie Miller had attempted to designate part of the area as a National Park and failed. Similar efforts in the 1960s by activist Tom Bell to designate part as a North American antelope range also failed. A 1994 Citizens' Wilderness Proposal recommended that seven Red Desert areas, including the Honeycombs, be designated wilderness. Realistically, this new threat is apt to move more quickly than any wilderness legislation.
Contact the decision-makers listed below and ask them to give the strongest protection possible for the Jack Morrow Hills area and the Red Desert. Urge special protection for the 88,000 acre Steamboat Mountain "core area," including these recommendations: 1) Prohibit new roads on Steamboat Mountain; 2) Prohibit mining and oil and gas development on Steamboat Mountain and in the surrounding core area. Request that no new leases be issued; 3) reclaim and obliterate unnecessary and environmentally damaging roads that crisscross the area; 4) emphasize the uniqueness of the Steamboat Mountain desert elk herd.
- Tom Fry Director, BLM Department of the Interior 1849 C St. NW LSB-204 Washington, DC 20240 (202) 208-3801 (202) 208-5242 (fax) e-mail: Tom_A_Fry@IOS.DOI.GOV
- Al Pierson State Director, BLM PO Box 1828 Cheyenne, WY 82003 (307) 775-6001 (307) 775-6003 (fax) e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bruce Babbitt Secretary of the Interior Department of the Interior 149 C St. NW Washington, DC 20240 e-mail: email@example.com
- Governor Jim Geringer Capitol Building Cheyenne, WY 82003 (307) 777-7434 (phone) (307) 632-3909 (fax) e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Red Desert has long been a destination for adventurers. From the pioneers moving westward on the Oregon and Mormon Trails to present day ranchers, recreationists and NOLS students seeking solace in the sand, sage-brush, and rock formations of the Great Divide Basin, it has always been a place of mystery, beauty and silence. Hopefully that silence will not soon be diminished by the din of oil rigs, seismic equipment and trucks. The Bureau of Land Management will soon release a plan (the Jack Morrow Hills Coordinated Activity Plan) that will largely determine the fate of this unique high elevation desert. Containing large amounts of oil and gas and minerals, the largest migratory game herd in the lower 48 states and stunning vistas, the battle over how this land will be used will be a critical one. It is important that citizens who love Wyoming's wild lands contact federal decision-makers about this little known but much loved area. This is the last, relatively untouched high elevation desert in the United States.
For more information about the Red Desert, please contact Mac Blewer or Dan Heilig of the Wyoming Outdoor Council at: Wyoming Outdoor Council, 262 Lincoln Street Lander, WY 82520, (307) 332-7031, (307) 332-6899 (fax), e-mail: email@example.com or visit www.wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org.