Hostile Beauty

Few people outside of Wyoming know about the Red Desert, and that's partly why this national treasure is in jeopardy

  • Geoffrey O'Gara
  • Aug 01, 2002
AS THE LITTLE CESSNA drops its right wing and begins a slow turn east following the creekbed of the Dry Sandy, the Oregon Buttes loom before us like a blunt-faced whale surfacing from the sagebrush plains, barnacled with limber pine. In the passenger seat, conservationist Tom Bell tries to sort the snow-dusted trails, creeks and escarpments below us.

He is trying to pick out the Oregon Trail, one of several historic tracks across southwest Wyoming, where the mountains of the Continental Divide flatten out in a huge expanse of high, arid plain known as the Red Desert. Historic landmarks are only one of the unique features of the desert: Within an area of five million acres--bigger than the state of Connecticut--are huge traveling sand dunes, the largest migrating herd of pronghorns in North America, desert elk and the topographic wonder of the Great Divide Basin, a bowl from which no water escapes, east or west.

"Some people don't see the beauty, or the value," says Bell, who has spent a lifetime defending the Red Desert against those who would dig up its minerals, wipe out its wildlife or string power lines along the old wagon ruts. "But a vast inland desert at this high elevation is so unique."

There is no exact border to the Red Desert. At its heart is the Great Divide Basin, where the continent splits like a broken zipper just south of the Wind River Mountains and cups about 660,000 acres before coming back together south of Interstate 80 near Rawlins, Wyoming. Most descriptions of the Red Desert extend beyond the basin to include features such as the Killpecker Sand Dunes to the west and, to the south, Adobe Town, a wonderland of eroded sandstone pillars and cliffs near the Colorado border. What binds it all together is the unbroken openness, the lack of moisture and the lack of people.

DON'T FENCE ME IN: Splitting the Continental Divide and covering an area larger than the state of Connecticut, the Red Desert has few fences and no fixed boundaries. It includes a wealth of topographic features, including volcanic cones, wetlands and sagebrush steppes. These habitats shelter 350 species of wild creatures such as this badger, which is digging a new burrow after its old den was destroyed by a bulldozer preparing the site for oil drilling.

Our pilot is taking us up because he's never had an opportunity to explore the Red Desert. He couldn't have found a better guide than Bell, a World War II bombardier who grew up just north of the desert, on a ranch outside of Lander. Bell is best known as the founder of the Colorado-based conservation publication High Country News. But Bell is also a wildlife biologist, and he knows where to look for desert elk: on the southern flank of the Oregon Buttes; in the Honeycomb Buttes, a maze of colorfully banded sandstone; and in the dunes, where snow refrigerated in sand melts to form wildlife-friendly ponds. He can also differentiate each scar on the landscape--even the tracks of seismic tests for oil and natural gas from the 1940s. "They claimed they could just cover that up," says the feisty 78-year-old, who recently was named the National Wildlife Federation's Conservationist of the Year. "That's a crock."

People like our pilot stay away because this country is, for all its stark beauty, wind-blown and inhospitable, and far from a coffee shop or phone booth. Few would guess, glancing out the window as they drive north from Rock Springs to Yellowstone, that they were looking at an ecological niche of immense importance.

"Species are contracting into this area from all over," said Erik Molvar, a biologist with Biodiversity Associates, a Wyoming conservation group that has studied the Red Desert for potential wilderness designation. "Take the mountain plover, one of the rare shorebirds that shows up here--it used to be a plains species, and this was the edge of its habitat. Now it's core habitat." Plovers, sage grouse and other species are declining to the east as the Great Plains are fenced and cultivated for agriculture; to the west, energy development and exotic species have invaded and compromised their habitat. The Red Desert may be their last refuge.

Molvar likes to point out lesser known but rare Red Desert residents such as the burrowing owl, blowout penstemon and the pygmy rabbit. But the high desert is also loaded with "celebrity" species, such as the golden eagles and ferruginous hawks that soar off the cliffs of Oregon Buttes, Steamboat Mountain and Continental Peak. Or the elk, which once migrated from the Yellowstone area, but now live year-round in the desert and number in the thousands.

Then there is the 40,000-strong pronghorn herd--you'll see them grazing on the hills, almost invisible against the tawny earth and snow, or racing like a flurry of leaves in the wind. Southwest Wyoming is their stronghold, and they journey annually from the Red Desert west and north along the Green River corridor, up into the Gros Ventre Mountains near Jackson Hole. The route is increasingly littered with oil and gas drilling rigs, "ranchette" subdivisions, and the roads that connect them.

Wyoming's reputation as the nation's "energy breadbasket"--with large reserves of coal, uranium, oil and gas--hovers over the Red Desert. A coal-bed methane drilling boom is underway in the Powder River Basin around Gillette, and industry sources say the methane gas deposits in the Green River Basin adjacent to the Red Desert are even larger. As a result, the energy industry is now turning its attention to the area over which we fly.

Much of the Red Desert is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but it is broken up by sections of state lands and a checkerboard pattern of private and public ownership along the Interstate 80 corridor, which follows the old Union Pacific rail line. While BLM is looking at proposed wilderness areas in parts of the Red Desert, it has allowed drilling and exploration in many areas since the 1970s. In a region that gets less than ten inches of rain annually, these disturbances to the soil aren't easily erased.

As the plane follows the Dry Sandy east, it dawns on Bell that this is not the Oregon Trail immediately below. It is the bed of a narrow-gauge railway that once ran between an iron ore mine and mill near South Pass and the Union Pacific rail line in Rock Springs. Which reminds me, in the backseat, of another ride I'd taken a decade ago, clinging to the roof of a little diesel engine rolling down those tracks. On one side of us some pronghorn perked and dodged off into the hills; on the other, six feral horses raced. In the cab beneath me, John Mioczynski was at the controls. He had been hired by a salvage company when the mine shut down to patrol the tracks looking for vandalism.

Mioczynski is a wildlife biologist currently studying bighorn sheep for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He is one in a long line of desert rats who've fallen in love with a place which--with its hot dry summers and howling cold winters--shows no love for humans.

Mioczynski discovered it on a map: He was a college student in New York, looking for the most vacant place he could find to spend a summer. In 1967, he drove his jeep into the desert and lived on rabbits, sage grouse and wild plants while he learned the desert's flora and fauna. He found tipi rings, abandoned homesteads and parts of old wagons sticking up from quicksand. "I was all alone, and happy that way, but there were signs that people had been out here doing things," he says. "I began to see it was a pretty hospitable place. A hostile, beautiful, hospitable place."

Wandering around, he found an ancient awl made of yellow jasper, crocodile bones preserved in sediment and gastropod fossils. Fossils are everywhere in the exposed sandstones, telling the story of what was once a very different world. Some 50 million years ago, the Red Desert was part of a subtropical lake that covered much of southwestern Wyoming. The sands at the bottom of this lake, washed down from nearby mountains, today form the largest living dune system in the country, the Killpecker dunes.

BACK HOME: A desert elk pauses while grazing near the Killpecker dunes. The elk that originally roamed the Red Desert were nearly wiped out by the first half of the twentieth century. State wildlife officials relocated 86 elk to this area in the 1940s, and the herd now numbers in the thousands. 

The dunes stretch more than 50 miles west to east, from Boar's Tusk to Steamboat Mountain. Life on the dunes is mostly a night affair, when dune beetles, voles, shrews, white-footed mice and kangaroo rats are about, and the predators linked to them--bobcats, owls, golden eagles--follow. Snow collected on the lee side of dunes is covered and insulated by sand, banking ice for water throughout the year. The ponds here attract a surprising array of ducks and shorebirds, as well as desert elk.

These elk are not the same herd that was noted by hunters back in the nineteenth century. Settlement and hunting wiped out most of those animals by the 1940s, when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department transplanted 86 elk from the Jackson area to the vicinity of Boar's Tusk and the Killpecker dunes. Wildlife managers hoped the elk would migrate back and forth from the Jackson area, as they had historically, which would reduce the necessity for feeding them through the winter at the National Elk Refuge.

But the transplanted elk realized, like Mioczynski, that there was a lot of nourishment hidden beneath the desert's stern face, especially around Steamboat Mountain, and there they stay year-round. The elk population has grown far beyond the herd of 500 envisioned, and another herd of elk now comes down from the Wind River Mountains to winter along the Sweetwater River, on the north edge of the desert.

Leonard Hay, a banker and rancher from Rock Springs, was there when the elk were reintroduced, and like many locals involved in grazing and energy development in the Red Desert, he scoffs at conservationists' efforts to protect the area. "I enjoy drilling on my land," says the outspoken Hay, now in his 80s, "and those rig workers usually have a rifle in the pickup, which means less coyotes."

Hay spoke to me during a meeting held by BLM in Rock Springs last January. The meeting was one of several to consider management options for a 622,000-acre parcel of the Red Desert called the Jack Morrow Hills, which includes Steamboat Mountain, the Oregon Buttes, the sand dunes and the Honeycomb Buttes. Milder-mannered ranchers than Hay expressed fear that their grazing rights on public lands might be endangered, but many conservationists are willing to work with ranchers--their fears for the Red Desert focus more on the energy industry.

BLM's proposal to allow more oil and gas development in the Jack Morrow Hills--where 150 wells have been sunk in the past--has thrust the Red Desert and the local BLM office into a rather unfamiliar national spotlight (see box below). "We have no idea what the administration is going to do with Jack Morrow Hills, but public comment favors a conservation alternative," says Mac Blewer, an organizer for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "It's a treasure and deserves the highest protection."

FREE RANGE? The Red Desert is home to the continent's largest herd of migrating pronghorns, which travels along the Green River corridor and depends on windblown sagebrush for sustenance during winter. But these and other grazers are finding their paths littered with more oil and gas drilling rigs and storage tanks (above, where a mule deer jumps a fence), as well as "ranchettes" and roads. The federal government is considering proposals to open even more of this vital wildlife habitat to energy exploration and development.

The effort to protect the Red Desert goes back more than a century. In 1898, sportsmen proposed a federal "winter game reserve" in the desert. In 1935, Wyoming Governor Leslie Miler proposed a Great Divide Basin National Park, citing the rich history of the area. Wyoming geologist Dave Love and Tom Bell each met with Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in the 1960s to lobby for protection at some level, whether it be a park, an antelope preserve or a national landmark.

Love acknowledges that there is not just oil and gas in the Red Desert, there are coal seams "50 feet thick, more than anyone knows." There are open-pit coal mines in the checkerboard of private lands between Rock Springs and Rawlins, and the remnants of an abandoned uranium mine and mill.

Add to that the damage left by over-grazing generations ago, and it's clear that this is not an area with a pristine past--a point which detractors are quick to make. But its vistas are still open, and its history goes much further back than mere centuries. As we fly north, Bell describes the Red Desert as "one of our very best wildlands, and one of our last," and points to places below where one might find dinosaur remains or ancient sharks' teeth.

That's the sort of thing John Mioczynski might have picked up during his early wanderings in the desert. He used to put the things he found in cigar boxes--shards of quartzite, bones, arrowheads, fossils. But one day he took his collection back out in the desert, to the areas where he'd found the artifacts, and left them there.

"After that, I'd pick up an antelope skull, walk with it for awhile, then put it down," says Mioczynski. "Everyone's out there taking things. You don't take things from a place that's sacred."

Wyoming writer Geoffrey O'Gara's most recent book is What You See in Clear Water (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).



The National Wildlife Federation and a state affiliate, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, have long been engaged in efforts to safeguard wild inhabitants of the Red Desert, such as the sage grouse. However, the recent rise in oil and gas prices has led to a frenzy of proposals to fully develop this area, jeopardizing critical habitats and migratory corridors. To conserve the wild character and wildlife of this special place, NWF is pursuing legal action against the federal government to stop the massive development of these ecologically spectacular public lands. The federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees much of the land in the Red Desert, is currently seeking public comment on two draft land-use planning documents that together will determine the management priorities of these lands for the next 10 to 15 years. This gives citizens from across the country the opportunity to speak out in favor of protecting the Red Desert's natural wonders.

To find out how you can help protect this Wild Heart of the West, visit our Red Desert page.

Related Reading 
Although its speed is legendary, the pronghorn can't outrun changes to its habitat in the American West. To learn about the threats facing Sonoran Desert pronghorn, see "Homeless on the Range" (National Wildlife, Oct/Nov 1999).

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