ONE of the last undeveloped tracts of high-elevation desert in the Rocky Mountains, Wyoming's Jack Morrow Hills rise from the southwestern corner of the state, a region of stark beauty, vivid isolation and the site of one of the latest range wars to roil the West.
Valued by conservationists and developers alike, this 620,000-acre parcel is the most precious in the region known as the Red Desert. It has the largest active sand dune system in the country, the largest migratory herd of pronghorn antelope in North America and a sea of untapped oil and gas beneath its hoodoos, buttes and mountains.
At issue is a finding by the Bureau of Land Management that the Jack Morrow Hills could support 205 oil and gas wells over the next two decades. Developers argue necessity, conservationists cry politics, and as the bureau finalizes its recommendations, set to be released in February, a last-minute scramble is taking place to influence the fate of an area slightly larger than Orange County. (Protests, reviews and appeals notwithstanding, the recommendations will be implemented if they are approved by the state.)
Earlier this fall, 25 runners from the local Shoshone and Arapaho tribes added their voices by organizing a 150-mile relay that took them from the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming, over the Continental Divide and into the Jack Morrow Hills, which contain gravesites, tepee rings and petroglyphs they consider sacred. The runners fear that development will be fast-tracked and the region will soon look like other parts of the state, crisscrossed with access roads and pockmarked with drilling rigs. "More people need to realize that the government is trying to get more movement on oil and gas development in the region," said Jason Baldes, who helped coordinate the run. "Once that happens, it changes the landscape forever."
Although conservation groups in the region praise the Bureau of Land Management, some say the Bush administration is pressuring the bureau to open up more of the Rockies to exploration. But Renée Dana, a bureau planning coordinator, points out that the initial assessment of the region was drafted during the Clinton administration. There is room for development, she says, if it is "carefully managed," and the Petroleum Assn. of Wyoming agrees.
"The bottom line is this: Gas consumption is going to increase in this country," said Dru Bower, the association's vice president. "We have to make sure we're responsible in the development of that resource. But it is unrealistic and irresponsible to put it off-limits to development."
Local municipalities also stand to benefit if the proposed development is approved. "Oil and gas production in Wyoming helps determine the assessed valuation of counties in the state," said Scott Harnsberger, treasurer of Fremont County, one of the areas that benefits from drilling. "We get funds that help us build new roads, schools and county facilities."
Not everyone is so pragmatic. With the bureau's permission, rancher Shirley DeLambert runs cattle from her 800-acre spread into the Jack Morrow Hills during the summer. "The people who want to limit the use of the region are very, very selfish," she said.
Self-interest was far from the minds of the Arapaho and Shoshone as they ended their 10-hour run. Sweat-streaked, dusty and tired, they stood in the twilight in a circle near a grove of changing aspens, and a Navajo elder said a prayer and made a tobacco offering.
Later, one young man reflected on the land he had just passed through. The Honeycombs, the Oregon Buttes, Steamboat Mountain — these are the landmarks of his past, he realized, places that had given his culture its identity and its purpose.
"I'm a military veteran," he said. "I've served in the Marines, done two tours in Desert Storm and Somalia. I've seen these other countries. We have more than what we need. It's true you can't stop development, but there are some areas that need to be protected."
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