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All That Glitters is Not Gold

By Molly Absolon

Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2003, Vol. 18, No. 2

 
 
At the edge of impact: Pronghorn antelope and mule deer migrate to the Upper Green River Basin from NOLS' wilderness classrooms high in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains.
© Linda Baker

Like a necklace of sparkling diamonds, lights from natural gas drilling rigs and well sites encircle Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, birthplace of the National Outdoor Leadership School. For years the Winds have been a pristine jewel of undeveloped wilderness surrounded by the equally majestic glitter of the Tetons, the Absarokas, the Wyoming Range, the Gros Ventre Mountains, and the Red Desert. This portion of Wyoming seemed immune to civilization’s woes. We didn’t have smog, traffic or industrial development. Now, as the sparkling lights attest, things are changing.

According to a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson, “Oil and gas industry sources predict that southwest Wyoming will become the major natural gas producing region in the United States by the year 2010.” As many as 6,000 to 20,000 gas wells — both conventional natural gas and coalbed methane — are projected over the next 20 years in the Red Desert to the south of the Winds and the Upper Green River Basin to the west. Couple this projection with proposals for wells in the Bridger-Teton National Forest along the northwestern edge of the mountains and gas wells already in existence near the farming community of Pavilion on the northeastern side of the range, and it is clear that NOLS’ home territory is surrounded.

“The only lights you used to see from the Winds were from small towns and scattered ranches, now there are lights in the blank spaces. Lights from oil and gas rigs,” NOLS Instructor Marco Johnson says.

Marco worked his first NOLS course in the Winds in 1985. In the nearly 20 years he has lived and worked in Wyoming, he has seen a marked change in the lands surrounding the Wind Rivers. His observations include increased industrial traffic on backcountry roads, wells visible from the highway, and most notably, a decrease in air quality.

“I have noticed a distinct change in visibility,” Marco says. “From places in the Winds you used to be able to look out in all directions and see distant mountain ranges: the Uintas, the Wyoming Range, the Tetons, and the Owl Creeks. Now you can only see those peaks on a rare clear day.”

Natural gas is clean burning, however, extracting it from the earth has consequences. Gas fields are tangled with roads and pipelines that fragment wildlife habitat, disrupt animal behavior, raise dust, and introduce exotic species. Emissions from the compressors and treatment facilities required to get the gas to market degrade air quality and can cause health problems. Contamination from spills or increased sedimentation can pollute both surface and groundwater. Traffic, noise and visual scars change the character of the land.

The Jonah II natural gas field is located south of Pinedale in the center of rolling sagebrush plains. Here, in the winter, dry facets of old snow blow across the bleak landscape. It’s not classically beautiful out here in the middle of the Upper Green River Basin, but the vast expanse and spectacular views are impressive. More importantly, this landscape is vital wildlife habitat. Listed as “crucial” winter range for large herds of pronghorn and mule deer — herds that migrate from the Winds, the Gros Ventres, and Teton National Park — wildlife biologists fear the impact of rampant energy development on the health of these animals. Sage grouse — a species that is moving ever closer to being listed as threatened or endangered — also live out in these barren plains.

The Jonah II field currently has 40-acre well spacing, but there is a push to decrease that spacing to 20 acres to allow for more concentrated development. Increased concentration will allow for 1,250 more wells together with the installation of additional facilities, and the construction of pipelines and access roads.

North of the Jonah field lies what is called the Mesa or the Pinedale Anticline Project Area. The Environmental Impact Statement approved for the Pinedale Anticline allows for up to 900 well pads. Here cars are forbidden to go off the main road; all roads except those maintained by the county are closed to off-highway vehicle travel from January through April. The BLM maintains that this closure is necessary to prevent disturbance to wintering mule deer.

 
 
Animals like this moose rely on proposed and current drilling areas for winter forage.
© Windland Rice
The animals rely on these areas for winter forage and an escape from snow. Furthermore, Wyoming’s drought — which entered its fourth consecutive year in 2003 — has left big game herds weakened. Nonetheless, this past year Questar Exploration and Production Company received permission to drill in an area where the public is forbidden to drive. Kelly Matheson, Greater Yellowstone Program Coordinator for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and a NOLS graduate, says this waiver demonstrates the BLM’s eagerness to accommodate the energy industry’s desire for unfettered access to public lands without regard for the impact that access has on wildlife.

Access to public lands has been a bone of contention for the Bush administration, the oil and gas industry, and many western congressional delegates. These various parties claim that most of the West is off limits to oil and gas leasing. But a report prepared by the Department of Energy and released in January 2003 states that 85 percent of the oil and 88 percent of the natural gas found in five major western basins is currently available for leasing under varying degrees of restrictions. These findings seem to contradict the claim that industry has been shut out of the Rocky Mountain Region.

Industry groups believe that the report underestimates barriers to development — barriers that protect wildlife, scenery and other multiple-use values. “We must still recognize that regulatory barriers and bureaucracy often prevent development of these resources,” said Diemer True of True Oil Company in Casper and chairman of the Petroleum Association of America.

Environmentalists counter this charge by saying that the restrictions reviled as impediments to development are really only inconveniences, things like seasonal closures, surface occupancy requirements, and site rehabilitation guidelines. They recognize that these restrictions cost money for developers, but contend that the price is what it really costs to conduct business on public lands with competing values.

Use of public lands is important to Wyoming’s economy. Hunting, fishing and trapping brought $1 billion in revenues to the state in 2000, while in 2001, the Wyoming travel and tourism industry generated $1.82 billion. NOLS also relies heavily on public lands. Many of NOLS’ operating areas are in federally-designated wilderness, and, therefore, protected from drilling, but the wildlife, clean water and clear air that make Wyoming’s wild places wild aren’t constrained by administrative boundaries. The Class I air shed of the Wind Rivers lies downwind of the Upper Green River Basin. The wildlife that roam the subalpine zone in the summer migrate into the basins each winter. The waters flow south into rivers NOLS’ courses run and cities drink.

Income from tourism and travel is important to Wyoming, but it pales next to the amount of money oil and gas bring to the state. Wyoming receives 52 percent of its annual income from taxes on minerals such as oil and gas, trona and coal. Of that total figure, oil and gas account for more than 60 percent according to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. At a time when most states are facing budget deficits, spikes in energy prices and the push for oil and gas development have proven to be a windfall for Wyoming.

The state’s dependence on minerals, in particular on oil and gas, put it into a difficult position — kind of like the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. The increased emphasis from the Bush Administration to develop the nation’s energy reserves coupled with the state’s need for a reliable source of income, make the pressure to drill palatable.

 
As many as 6,000 to 20,000 gas wells - both conventional natural gas and coalbed methane - are projected over the next 20 years in the Red Desert to the south of the Winds and the Upper Green River Basin to the west.
© Peter Aengst/TWS/LightHawk
 
“We are the epicenter of the Bush energy plan,” says Dan Heilig, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council and a former NOLS instructor. “The number of wells proposed in this state will soon reach 100,000. We’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Looking out across the miles of empty sage brush that dominate much of Wyoming, it’s hard to feel panicked about oil and gas development. There’s so much space, so many animals, so few people. But when you start to talk to someone who lives near a well, has noticed the changes in visibility over the years, or does environmental work, you begin to understand why people are scrambling.

Sylvia Sandoval, part owner of the Mocroft Ranch near Pinedale, is one who is learning to live with gas wells on her ranch.

“I remember thinking that I could live with one or two wells. I wasn’t thinking about roads, pipelines, trailers, dust, noise…” she says. “I know it was uninformed, ridiculous thinking…I feel stupid now that I see what is happening.”

Sandoval’s not the only one speaking out on this issue. The Bureau of Land Management received more than 12,000 comments on its draft environmental impact statement for the Jack Morrow Hills area of the Red Desert in winter 2000. Of these comments, 93 percent backed a Citizens’ Red Desert Protection Alternative. This wave of public opposition to oil and gas development in the Jack Morrow Hills prompted then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to order a supplemental management plan putting conservation first. But the Bush Administration rescinded Babbitt’s “Conservation Directive” and called for the BLM to draft a plan with a wide range of alternatives.

The BLM’s preferred alternative differs from the majority of the public’s input to protect the area and calls for staged development of more than 200 oil and gas wells centered around Steamboat Mountain where a rare herd of desert elk flourishes, wild horses roam, the largest migratory game herd in the lower United States lives, and NOLS horse courses travel.

“We start horse courses at Jack Morrow Draw and camp next to Steamboat Mountain on spring semesters,” instructor Julia Wilmerding says. “It’s special out there. You see tons of wildlife: elk, antelope, wild horses…We already pass a few oil wells. I remember some students asking if the thumping they heard in the distance was drums. It was the thumping of an oil well. The wells can be really loud and the horses freak out when we have to ride near them.

“More oil and gas development is going to jeopardize our ability to run courses out there,” Julia adds.

“I think that everyone agrees that we need some responsible energy development. We all drive cars,” Mac Blewer of the Wyoming Outdoor Council says. “But that doesn’t mean that we need to drill everything, everywhere. Some places should just be left alone forever.”

Molly Absolon, a NOLS instructor since 1986, lives and writes in Lander, Wyo.

 
 
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“It’s special out there. You see tons of wildlife: elk, antelope, wild horses…We already pass a few oil wells.”

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