Officials note wilderness characteristics in Wyoming’s Red Desertby Kelsey Dayton
— April 29, 2014
Wyoming’s Red Desert isn’t just meant to be seen, said the Rev. Warren Murphy. It’s a place meant to be experienced. “You sense the desert, the air, the sand, the wildlife, the sounds— or silence,”he said.
It’s a place Murphy and the Wyoming Association of Churches see as sacred and in need of protection. Murphy, and other proponents of conserving the Red Desert, want people to take advantage of a special public comment period (now open, and closing May 16) regarding an environmental assessment that could result in stronger protections for the Red Desert’s visual resources (protecting vistas) and wilderness characteristics.
Conservationists want Congress to consider special wilderness protections for areas of the Red Desert. While the desert is a vast, mostly empty region, it also home to a great deal of agriculture and energy development.
For an area to be considered to have wilderness characteristics it must have 5,000 acres of roadless, contiguous land. It also must have natural characteristics where human presence or products are mostly unnoticeable. And it must provide outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive recreation.
Once an area is developed it loses its eligibility and potential protections of wilderness characteristics. Having the designation does not preclude an area from development, according to federal officials.
The Wyoming Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins Field Office recently evaluated about 2.2 million acres of the Red Desert in south-central Wyoming. It excluded the more than 1 million acres located in areas where the land is a patchwork of public and private and likely wouldn’t meet the contiguous acreage standard. The inventory lists about 74,000 acres determined to have wilderness characteristics, said Shelley Gregory, spokesperson with the BLM.
Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, estimates that less than 5 percent of the land in the state qualifies for wilderness characteristics.
The lands in the Rawlins BLM inventory, including some around Adobe Town, have thus far escaped development. Molvar said he hopes the public submits comments during the special May 2-16 comment period that help make the case to protect the areas permanently.The Red Desert is a fragile and priceless ecosystem that can’t survive development, according to Molvar.
“These are some of the most threatened areas in Wyoming,”he said.
WildEarth Guardians would like the BLM to withdraw Adobe Town and the adjacent area from future leasing and require permitted activity to be done in a way to maintain the wilderness characteristics.
“It’s a geological wonderland that is both fragile and spectacular and a priceless recreational resource for everyone in Wyoming and, of course, the rest of the country as well,”Molvar said.
The Red Desert has been home to energy development for decades, and areas of the desert remain prime targets, especially for natural gas and uranium. Producers propose expanding operations to cover another 3,000 to 5,000 acres with oil and gas wells in the next 10 to 20 years, said Richard Garrett, legislative advocate and energy policy analyst with the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
“It will definitely change the flavor of the Red Desert in many ways,”Garrett said of pending development plans. That isn’t to say energy development isn’t important, but it’s about balance and needs to be done in the right place, Garrett said.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council’s interest in the area goes back to when Tom Bell founded the organization 47 years ago. “It really is part of what the Outdoor Council is all about,”Garrett said.
The Red Desert is one of the largest unfenced areas in the continental United States. It’s an important ecosystem for wildlife. It provides solace and escape for those looking to spend time alone in the world.
“When it comes to the Red Desert, that’s an iconic landscape that is unique in the country, if not the world,”Garrett said. Those landscapes with wilderness characteristics are what make the Red Desert special. That’s why it’s crucial for people to weigh in and share what the area means to them, Garrett said.
The comment period, which was extended to four weeks and ends May 16, is a chance for people to submit comments only on the inventory and how it could impact the visual resource management plan amendment, according to BLM officials. Comments on anything else will not be considered.
The BLM is always looking for angles, special considerations or things they didn’t consider when writing the plan. The inventory can be viewed online.
Submit a comment:
Mail or deliver: BLM Rawlins Field Office, 1300 N. Third St., P.O. Box 2407, Rawlins WY 82301.
For more information on the RMP and associated documents visit this BLM website. Comments are due May 16.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.