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Author Annie Proulx

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Photographer Martin Stupich

This book is not intended as another plea to save the greater Red Desert. Many tries for conservation by people who love the place have come and gone over the decades, defeated by the prevailing attitude of “show me the money,” by the congressional cold shoulder, by lack of knowledge of what is in that high desert, by the complex mixture of politics and culture, and by the momentum of our times, inexorably propelled by shifting global histories, which, like massive continental plates, have thrust us into the present.

This book tries to sort out what there is about the Red Desert that makes it valuable, scientifically and historically interesting. We hoped to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around the place.

anniep-1From RED DESERT by Annie Proulx, photography by Martin Stupich, Copyright (c) 2008. Courtesy of University of Texas Press. Visit Website Here.

There is nothing in the Red Desert but sagebrush, and who needs it?

Now that forage is depleted, the Red Desert is empty wasteland. Coal, oil, gas, gravel, and trona are its only assets.

There were never any ranches in the Red Desert.

Wildlife is mostly feral horses that eat grass that could otherwise nourish cattle and sheep.

There is no water.

The Red Desert had nothing to do with the formation of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The project began several years ago when photographer Martin Stupich asked me to write an introduction to a collection of his photographic work in the Red Desert. I agreed, thinking it would be a simple matter to go the University of Wyoming’s library, gather up the books on the region, and write a general overview of the place. I was stunned to discover there was not one single book on the Red Desert in Coe Library. Nor did a search of the American Heritage Center’s archives turn up much beyond an old photograph of a locomotive stalled by the infamous 1949 blizzard, and a nineteenth-century paper on forage plants by the esteemed botanist Aven Nelson. What we did not know about this huge area of the state began to swell up into a thundercloud of general ignorance.

Martin Stupich’s photographs were not meant to illustrate the text, but are his stand-alone record of the desert over a period of years. The text grew up around what we didn’t know rather than the photographs. As we worked on the book, we learned that Red Desert fieldwork and study could absorb many lifetimes. Our book is only a start. Almost everyone who worked on the project came away excited by what they found, dazzled by the possibilities for learning more. Hydrologist Craig Thompson mentioned that Bitter Creek, draining one of the largest basins in North America, could enrich our knowledge of water in high desert. There are flowing wells out there that serve as oases for wildlife, ice lenses in the sand dunes that melt into pools of water. None of these are well studied. Prospector Bob Cook said that every trip revealed something new to him — barrel hoops, purple glass, selenium indicator plants, and “a zillion roads; it’s a spider web out there.” Entomologist Jeff Lockwood was amazed by the riches of insect life, which he said seemed “absolutely staggering,” adding that the diversity “has got to be phenomenal … the place is not homogeneous.” We learned that the Red is composed of rich pocket habitats catering to a wide variety of specialized vertebrates, invertebrates and plants, pockets that are scarcely known and certainly not mapped. Lockwood described these habitat pockets as archipelagos of life in the sea that is the Red Desert.

From RED DESERT by Annie Proulx, photography by Martin Stupich, Copyright (c) 2008. Courtesy of University of Texas Press

From RED DESERT by Annie Proulx, photography by Martin Stupich, Copyright (c) 2008. Courtesy of University of Texas Press

The scale of seeing is very different as well, said Lockwood — “so much of what happens in the Red Desert happens within ten feet and beyond a thousand feet.” One constantly shifts perspective from what is close at hand to the far horizon line, creating a kind of psychological double-think, constantly forcing one to consider the particular in relation to the whole.

Dotted over the desert are old ranch and even ghost town sites rich in dumps — tin cans, machinery, appliances, cars, all the bits and pieces of old-time Wyoming life. Russ Tanner mentioned that the mining ghost town of Sublet has a dump of cans that covers three hundred acres. Can historians, archeologists, and their students learn something from the detritus of the western yesteryear?

Botanists Walter and Laura Fertig fell in love doing fieldwork in the Red Desert a decade ago. Walter Fertig is a specialist in Wyoming’s rare plants, and he wrote, “It was such a tremendous personal discovery to find so many unusual and interesting species in places that so many people thought were without any redeeming value — just wastelands only good for drilling oil and gas, feeding cows, or driving across really fast.” He continued: “And as a conservation-minded naturalist, I can see that the Wyoming basin country really is the area that we are most responsible for conserving into the future. Of course a lot of my friends and colleagues think I’m a little crazy for holding this view, and it has been a frustrating, uphill effort for years trying to convince other conservation-minded individuals and groups that lands like the Red Desert need to be protected as much as, if not more than, the Yellowstones.”

From RED DESERT by Annie Proulx, photography by Martin Stupich, Copyright (c) 2008. Courtesy of University of Texas Press

From RED DESERT by Annie Proulx, photography by Martin Stupich, Copyright (c) 2008. Courtesy of University of Texas Press

As entomologist Jeff Lockwood pointed out, millions of people pass through the Red Desert every year without seeing it. Interstate 80 bisects the desert, and trucks and cars rush past seemingly endless miles of sagebrush, dismissing what they see as monotonous and useless. From that highway the Red Desert does not seem interesting. This is an illusion, for this place is rich in fossils, a vast stone book of pictographs and artifacts of Native American tribes. The early explorers of the west came through it. It was part of the great westward emigration. The Union Pacific Railroad cut through its center, separating the bison into north and south herds. Great sheep trails from California to the east and New Mexico to the north traversed the Red Desert. Bison, desert elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep lived in it. Fish swam in its waters. Outlaws hid in its folds and badlands. And a number of hardy people, abetted by the Homestead Act of 1862, impressed by the big open space, and hungry for land — many of them ex-railroad workers and coal miners — tried to establish and maintain ranches in remote and difficult corners. Some succeeded, and all contributed to the state’s reputation for hardiness, cheerful toughness, and ability to withstand privation.

It is our hope that this book will encourage naturalists, historians, graduate students, and Wyoming residents to venture into the Red Desert and discover for themselves the microhabitats, curiosities, and beauty of what remains in this little-known place, that they will observe for themselves the new roads and attendant dust storms, notice the biomass of halogeton, Russian thistle, cheatgrass, and other invasive weeds along those roads that come with soil disturbance. It is easy to blame all the changes in the Red Desert on energy extraction work, but that is the narrow view. There are countless Red Deserts in this world. Jack States touched the larger problem when he said, “Undeniably much of the pristine Red Desert ecosystem is imperiled not only by resource hungry corporations fueled by a resource hungry populace (that includes sanctimonious environmentalists), but also by inexorable global warming and extinction of species. To me the issues we face in the Red Desert are not that different from any other aspect of global environmental crisis spawned by a burgeoning human population.”

There are important subjects that neither time nor space allowed us to include: a review of fossil finds from the Fossil-Uinta-Gosiute lakes; fish, extinct and living; ice lenses in the Killpecker Dunes; fire in the Red Desert; soil studies; wind, weather, and the severe drought that continues to grip the entire west; the error-riddled survey of the southern state line, which caused land ownership problems for years; the history of the dryland farm colony on Brown’s Hill in the 1920s; hunters and poachers; the people of the North Country and the Sweetwater valley; the labor history of the coal mining towns; the extraordinary scenery of the badlands. Nor was there room for the stories of characters and tough old desert rats like the hermit who trimmed his hair with a lighted newspaper; horse catcher Tex Love, found sitting dead against a rock; the fellow who found the frozen body of a dead sheepherder, loaded him onto the roof of his vehicle, and casually drove around the nearest town doing errands. The women freighters, the practice of boarding ranch children in town for schooling, and the medical exigencies in sickness and accident all deserve examination.

From RED DESERT by Annie Proulx, photography by Martin Stupich, Copyright (c) 2008. Courtesy of University of Texas Press

From RED DESERT by Annie Proulx, photography by Martin Stupich, Copyright (c) 2008. Courtesy of University of Texas Press

Someone who spent time in the Red Desert years ago recently remarked to me that he could not bear to go back and see it in a spoiled condition. But we have to go back. We cannot turn away from the place. Jack States, who wrote on the biological soil crusts for this book, was born and raised in Wyoming. He related: “In my younger days I was strongly influenced by my grandfather who gauged the land by how many sheep it would support while at the same time communicating to me his deep concerns regarding vagaries of environment & weather and the cumulative negative effects of overgrazing. It was out of necessity that he was a steward of natural resources, but it was out of respect and love for creation that he strived for balance, cultural with natural, conservation with exploitation. Because I value the beauty and solitude of the Red Desert landscapes, I admit to being intensely possessive, even angry at the fresh tire track, the ATV, and the army of seismic trucks. But I also believe that with good science, we can successfully manage its natural resources for sustainability.”

For Gary Beauvais the great characteristic of the Red Desert is “sheer open SPACE.” He wrote: “Boil down that piece of country to its core, and outright vastness is left. … Space is responsible for many of the Red Desert wildlife values. The Red Desert is a stronghold for Greater Sage-grouse because they can lek in one place, nest thirty miles away, fly another twenty miles to primary winter range, then move another twenty to survival range if the weather gets really bad. It’s a stronghold for low-country elk because they can use sheer distance to avoid disturbances. I’ve spooked herds around Steamboat Mountain and watched them run, steadily, for at least a couple of miles before they fade out of sight behind a distant ridge. A golden eagle perched on a Red Desert butte or rim surveys more country than any eagle ever did sitting on a power pole in the Great Plains. And every road, well field, and pit mine makes it smaller. Whereas before there were no boundary features, now we are carving all sorts of lines into the Red Desert. Some are visual only … like 2-tracks and abandoned railroads … but others are functional, actual boundaries, like I-80 and Jonah Field and coal-bed methane fields with their attendant roads and man camps.”

The many-faceted character of this high, cold desert haunts those who have spent time in its irreplaceable silence and space. Mac Blewer, living in the Washington, D.C., corridor (“Land of Perpetual Self Importance”), knows that. He wrote: “The desert comes to me now in my sleep. The other night I dreamed of antelope bounding through the sage and rabbit-brush. A murky shape that looked like Steamboat Mountain — covered in fog — was in the background. I remembered the desert looking like that after a blizzard in late June several years ago. I had been hiking … in the Sands and had been surprised by the brief wintry storm that had caught me unawares. After 24 hours of snow, hail, wind and lightning, the sun came out, the snow melted, and a thick mist rose up. Walking through the aspens and limber pine, I could see new flowers sprouting and butterflies sunning themselves on snow-banks. After a time the fog lifted and I walked in peace and awe on the top of this desert island, wishing that my sojourn would never end.”

The Red Desert needs to be examined and studied. Perhaps the most we can hope to save are small pieces, little corners of what was once the largest area of unfenced land left in the United States, forced to ignore the old truth that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Something ineffable is already lost. But Andrea Cerovski remarks that there could be great value and utility in preserving the Red Desert as a national conservation area. It would allow us to study a place about which we know very little, and although there are a dozen of these areas in the United States, there is no national conservation area in Wyoming. They are designated by Congress to “conserve, protect, enhance, and manage public land areas for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Such areas “feature exceptional natural, recreational, cultural, wildlife, aquatic, archeological, paleontological, historical, educational or scientific resources.” The Red Desert meets every one of these criteria.

In November 2007, Adobe Town gained partial protection from noncoal surface, uranium, and oil shale mining in a 5-1 vote by the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council. It is not protected from oil and gas extraction.

It is sad to end on a bitter note, but as we were finishing this book, we learned that vandals had slashed archeologist Dudley Gardner’s tent with knives and damaged his dig site near a new and oncoming pipeline installation.

Reader Responses:

Those of us who have known and loved the Red Desert for generations of old crotchity Wyoming families, know that this new book and its philosophy will actually be part of the death knell for the Red Desert. Every time the do-gooders feel the necessity to share their “discoveries” with the world in a picture book, they are issuing an invitation to the world–”naturalists, historians, graduate students”–to probe, tromp, drive, populate, and decimate by their very presence the fragile landscape that is there. The value of the Red Desert is to be out there without another car, pickup, naturalist, or granola cruncher anywhere in sight. Inviting them there through the wonderful experiences of writers and illustrators who just have to share what they’ve found will insure that those values are lost for good. We’ve seen it happen time and again. Will they ever learn that if you want to preserve your discoveries of Wyoming’s secrets, the best thing you can do is shut up about it?

Craig Cooper, Riverton

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Published on April 20, 2009

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