Speak Your Piece: A Very Rare Reversal
Wyoming has lots of things going for it, so many, in fact, that they sometimes turn out to be mutually exclusive.
As an energy colony, my home state provides non-renewable and renewable forms of energy, pumping electrical power out onto the grid to feed the rest of the nation at an impressive rate while using very little of it ourselves. We’re also a state with abundant natural beauty, which we gladly share with visitors seeking wide open landscapes, thick forests, and pristine alpine lakes. We enjoy plenty of that natural beauty ourselves, though during times of energy booms, preserving the land, water and air sometimes comes second to earning a buck.
Currently, the developers have gained the upper hand, and the outcome of their ascendancy may have everlasting impact on some of the the most cherished landscapes of the state. A law created to protect Wyoming's "very rare and uncommon" lands has been revoked.
The people of Wyoming have taken measures to protect the natural world – the things that either brought new residents here or kept natives from leaving for lands of greater opportunity. I’m one of those lured here by the beauty. When I think “Wyoming,” images of Pinnacle Buttes, the Black Hills, Brooks Lake, and quaint mountain towns course through my mind.
Along with our aesthete tendencies, Wyomingites are pragmatic. We concede that most of us want the lights to come on when we hit a switch, and that Wyoming, being part of the United States, has an obligation to share its resources with our forty-nine mates. So we put up with coal-fired power plants and wind farms that have resulted in high-power transmission lines spanning the state. We endure natural-gas and coal-bed methane drilling because those things give our people jobs. We rub our eyes on days of heavy ozone and smog in our western mountains, air quality so bad it rivals Los Angeles. Lately we’ve learned to adjust to the reanimation of some long-closed uranium mines that will produce fuels for nuclear plants in other states.
Energy booms in Wyoming have historically not lasted too long; it has always just been a matter of time between when developers come and when they pack up again, leaving us, albeit with a little less coin in the way of severance taxes and paychecks, to enjoy the scenery, the peace and the quiet. It was to ensure the preservation of those very things that in 1973 our state government passed the Environmental Quality Act. That act led to the formation of the Environmental Quality Council (EQC), an independent agency charged with protecting “very rare or uncommon” Wyoming landscapes.
Here’s what the law says: “Whereas pollution of the air, water and land of this state will imperil public health and welfare, create public or private nuisances, be harmful to wildlife, fish and aquatic life, and impair domestic, agricultural, industrial, recreational and other beneficial uses; it is hereby declared to be the policy and purpose of this act to enable the state to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution; to preserve, and enhance the air, water and reclaim the land of Wyoming; to plan the development, use, reclamation, preservation and enhancement of the air, land and water resources of the state; to preserve and exercise the primary responsibilities and rights of the state of Wyoming; to retain for the state the control over its air, land and water and to secure cooperation between agencies of the state, agencies of other states, interstate agencies, and the federal government in carrying out these objectives.”
From the outset, the state’s powerful coal industry managed to have itself exempted from the Environmental Quality Act, but the regulation could apply to gas drilling and other types of mining.
Since the law went into effect, EQC has made 10 such designations of “very rare or uncommon” areas, including the historic sites of Fort Phil Kearny and Fort Fetterman, and Devil’s Gate, a significant spot on the Mormon and Oregon trails. Even the most pro-energy development folks wouldn’t want a gas field among interpretive markers describing 19th century military episodes or on the routes taken by pioneers.
But early in March, Wyoming’s new governor, Matt Mead, signed legislation revoking the EQC’s ability to designate lands as “very rare or uncommon.” That means developers of useful things other than coal, such as gas, copper, gold, and uranium, will be able to mine and extract across more of Wyoming’s 97,818 square miles.
Eli Bebout, a legislator who sponsored the bill, said he believes the designation has been abused and unnecessarily slows down permitting processes for energy development. The Wyoming Mining Association agrees. This viewpoint took a while to gain traction in the legislature. In fact, less extreme versions of the bill have made their way through the legislature twice in recent years, only to be vetoed by Mead’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Dave Freudenthal. But with the new governor came a radically changed statehouse. Supporting the Republican governor are 50 Republican legislators. Only ten Democrats rattle around together in the halls of the capitol.
Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA) has put in a great deal of time and effort in protecting Wyoming’s rare or uncommon places. Its executive director, Erik Molvar, said “The current legislature and governor have seen fit to take away the right of citizens to get state-based protections for the landscapes they cherish. This shows that the checks and balances between legislature and governor’s office have broken down and extreme anti-conservation measures can sneak through.”
One place that has received particular attention from BCA and other conservation groups is Adobe Town. In an area south of Interstate 80 called Red Desert, it’s so remote and tourist-unfriendly that most people don’t know it is there, and in 2007 it was designated as “rare and uncommon.” See for yourself!
To visit the Red Desert is to experience how the West might have looked hundreds or thousands of years ago. Roads are few and generally unpaved on this mostly public land. Power lines and cell towers are mainly absent, though more cropped up in the last gas boom. The Red Desert elk herd calls it home, as do wild mustangs and numerous species of birds, mammals, and sundry flora found nowhere else.
Adobe Town itself is a labyrinth of promontories and spires of sage-studded sandstone, projecting over the desert floor. Its huge structures, which almost appear man-made, have oriented travelers through the area during 12,000 years of human habitation in the region. Even today, the 180,910 acre tract is unmarked by human hands, unless you count the fingers of roads and well pads and pipeline markers that have crept into the edges of these stunning and ecologically sensitive acres.
A move by BCA and others to declare the Adobe Town area as a National Conservation Area would put it off limits to drilling forever, Molvar explained. When the EQC helped advance that cause by giving Adobe Town “very rare or uncommon” status, energy development folks around the state grumbled. No one likes what they perceive to be a land grab, especially one led by so-called “enviros” who, as the argument goes, plot to take all the public land away from Wyoming people and put it into the hands of the tree huggers. The fact that the battle over Adobe Town created a controversy, a place few in Wyoming have ever visited and with few trees to be hugged, makes me wonder if pragmatic Wyomingites have set aside the value of landscapes they’ve long cherished.
Or maybe it’s just a sign of the times. Wyoming’s population has changed, and the legislators it elects have changed to reflect who we are now as a state. In maybe-just-a-coincidence news, U.S. Census data show Wyoming's population up by 14 percent since 2000, with most growth in areas where the natural gas industry has created jobs that attracted people from out of state. For example, the city of Gillette, where many of northeast Wyoming’s energy workers live, increased in population by 48 percent over the past ten years. The town of Rock Springs’ population increased 23 percent. Rock Springs is the closest large city to the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields, which now rank among the most productive gas fields in the U.S.
Molvar’s group, and most other conservation organizations, are not against growth, but they do speak out against growth that seems reckless or arbitrary.
“The big boosters of this effort to strip away environmental protections think we need to have industrial development at all cost, and that there is nowhere so special that deserves protection,” Molvar explained. “We believe if industrial users can’t find a way to work in Wyoming without destroying areas that make Wyoming great, they aren’t working hard enough. This is a big state - there should be plenty of places for heavy industry without destroying Wyoming’s last best places.”’
Maybe people attracted here for practical rather than recreational or aesthetic reasons value what Wyoming offers differently than I do. But I have my doubts that this new approach is sustainable, either in terms of energy resources or aesthetics. I hate to see Wyoming ruin very rare or uncommon landscape tens of thousands of years in the making for a few more years of fuel.
Julianne Couch is the author of the energy travelogue Earth Wind & Sky: A Power Tour, forthcoming from Texas Tech University Press.