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Red Desert a Battleground Over Energy, Environment

Land: Southwestern Wyoming region is studied for federal protection, but there's interest in drilling for oil and natural gas.


FARSON, Wyo. — In the 1870s, Jack Morrow had a reputation in the mining towns of the West as a hard-drinking thief and swindler. He even killed a man in a gunfight.

The hills in southwestern Wyoming's Red Desert that bear his name are unforgiving in their harsh climate and isolation. And they are the subject of a rancorous battle among ranchers, environmentalists, oil and gas companies, hunters and others.

The Jack Morrow Hills, which lie mostly on federal land, have become a testing ground of two Bush administration commitments: opening more of the Rocky Mountains to drilling and protecting America's natural treasures.

In 1935, then-Wyoming Gov. Leslie Miller proposed the area as a national park and, in 1961, Congress mulled creating a national monument. Today, environmentalists are again advocating some type of federal protection.

With pressure to develop more domestic energy, drilling companies say that locking up the area would deprive America of large reserves of oil and natural gas.

About 150 wells have already been drilled in the hills. Debate heated up in 2000 when the U. S. Bureau of Land Management concluded that 65 more could be squeezed in.

Bruce Babbitt paid a visit in his last days as interior secretary and announced that he was rejecting the BLM plan and ordering the agency to adopt an alternative that leans more toward conservation.

Then-President Clinton had already used the 1906 Antiquities Act to create 19 monuments and expand three others, protecting 5.9 million acres. Babbitt's move was seen by industry and Wyoming officials as another way the Clinton administration sought to squirrel away Western lands.

But Clinton did not create a monument out of the Jack Morrow Hills because he was not allowed to. Federal law prevents any new national monuments in Wyoming without congressional approval.

The law was enacted in 1950 as a compromise when Grand Teton National Park was enlarged over the objections of Jackson Hole ranchers and state officials.

Stewart Udall, interior secretary from 1960-69, tipped off Babbitt about the hills. He said Babbitt's order was the only option the administration had to protect the area in a state with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for mineral tax revenue.

"I feel sorry for Wyoming," Udall said. "There's no voice in the government for conservation in Wyoming today. My friend [former Wyoming Sen.] Al Simpson used to have a sense of restraint on some things. But I don't hear those things now. It's let 'er rip."

Indeed, man's presence is evident throughout the hills: cellular towers dot high ridges, and scars from buried pipelines and cattle trails crisscross the area.

But because the Red Desert is so vast and underpopulated, many signs of humankind go unnoticed. Breathtaking vistas of towering buttes, volcanic formations and the largest shifting sand dunes in North America still abound.

Proponents of more drilling say the area is so wide open that a few more wells will not spoil the view nor harm herds of elk, mule deer, antelope and wild horses that roam the high desert.

"We honestly believe that we can have a balance between environmental protection and economic growth. We do it all the time," said Dru Bower, vice president of the Petroleum Assn. of Wyoming. "There is a tremendous gas reserve in the Jack Morrow Hills, and we don't believe it should be withdrawn or excluded from development."

Mac Blewer, of the Lander-based Wyoming Outdoor Council, said too much of the 4.5-million-acre Red Desert has already been developed, and enough is enough.

"It's a world-class landscape," he said. "You can go from red-rock country into a sea of sagebrush and then into a landscape resembling Saudi Arabia. I know of no place in America where you can do that.

"Where do we draw the line in the sand and say this is inappropriate? What landscapes do we further have to sacrifice?"

The hills draw not only drilling interests, but mountain and dirt bikers, hunters, anglers, backpackers, horseback riders, rock climbers and photographers.

American Indians want protection of their ancestors' religious sites, while paleontologists value the abundant fossils. Historians advocate preserving storied South Pass and other remnants of the Oregon, California and Mormon Pioneer trails that pass through the hills.

Scott Kier of Larkspur, Colo., prefers the area not be roped off.

"It needs to be a happy medium for everybody and it seems like a lot of environmentalists push for either their way or no way," he said while stopping to ride his all-terrain vehicle at the dunes during a vacation.

Charged with the thankless task of striking a balance among this milieu of competing interests is the BLM, which has been studying a 622,000-acre area encompassing the hills for four years.

Lloyd Dorsey, field representative for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen and wildlife group, said the BLM's helter-skelter leasing of wells has altered big game corridors hundreds of miles long.

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