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Understanding the Red Desert, Part 1


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next Wyoming Chronicle ♪ ♪ The Red Desert is a vast
expanse of land that defines south central
Wyoming. In total it makes up more than 4% of
Wyoming’s land mass and is considered to encompass
the Green River, Great Divide, and Washakie
Basins, almost 10 million acres. Renowned research
geologist Charles Ferguson remarked in Ann Proulx’s
book the Red Desert that there are very few places
on earth where the rocks are older but none have
such a history. This is because the Red Desert is
exceptionally young. as they race from Rawlins
to Rock Springs on Interstate 80 at 80 miles
an hour, others see some of the most spectacular
views Wyoming has to offer. As we enjoy Wyoming
photographer, Nickolas Wegener’s stunning
time-lapse and still photography we realize
that the Red Desert is more than an empty
wasteland full of just sagebrush and dust. first lived in the Red
Desert beginning 12,000 years ago during the
transitional period that marked the end of the last
ice age. Then, many believed, large bison was
the primary staple. Hunters killed large game
with spears tipped with beautifully crafted
projectile points until environmental changes led
to a loss of forage for large animals. Some
researchers also believe that big game may not have
been quite as important and that animals like
jackrabbits were hunted extensively. Evidence in
the form of rock art and petroglyphs can be found
at Boar’s Tusk, Seedskadie, and in the
East Flaming Gorge areas. Native American history is
abundant in the Red Desert. Many believe that
trappers reached southwest Wyoming in the early
1800s. The Red Desert’s ranching industry started
with sheep grazing well before the cattle boom of
the 1870s and ‘80s. Since sheep eat snow for water,
local men established flocks in and around the
Red Desert. Generations of American families
beginning in the 1840s also left their mark upon
the Red Desert as they migrated westward along
immigrant trails. environmental impact of an
estimated 350,000 pioneers and their wagon trains
traveling through Wyoming between 1841 and 1868 is
stilstill visible today. However, most trail ruts
are less dramatic but still evidence of a
people’s history worn into the earth. Historical
trails used by 19th century stagecoaches are
also part of the Red Desert’s legacy. Of
particular note, the Overland Stage initially
followed the Platte River and the Oregon Trail to
South Pass but later shifted to a route across
southern Wyoming. Stagecoach ruts in the
desert are still visible in a variety of locations
including north of Baggs. mountains to the north
beginning in 1867 led to stage and freight service
from Pointed Rocks on the Union Pacific Railroad
north to South Pass City. Today the Red Desert sees
many uses. The area is the focus of energy
development but about 10% of the Red Desert remains
protected. In the early 1970s renowned geologist
Dr. David Love and others championed the need to
protect some of the Red Desert from more
development. Such efforts continue today. Inn in Atlantic City,
Wyoming on the northern edge of Wyoming’s Red
Desert. A 9,000 plus square mile high desert in
south central Wyoming. Almost 80 years ago
Wyoming’s governor proposed that a large
portion of the Red Desert become a national park.
It’s the home of 350 species of wildlife
including the country’s largest migratory herd of
pronghorn, mule deer, and also reportedly the
world’s largest herd of desert elk. The Red Desert
is also the home of over 1,000 plant species. the Red Desert in southern
Wyoming was alive but with catfish, turtles,
crocodiles, and flamingos and heavily forested and
oft flooded shorelines. Today the Killpecker Sand
Dunes stretch 55 miles in the Red Desert and are
open to off-road vehicles. These living dunes are one
of North America’s largest fields. World-class energy
deposiposits in the Red Deset include oil shale, natural
gas, uranium, coal, and trona. Today we’ve
assembled a wonderful panel to learn more and
understand the issues related to Wyoming’s Red
Desert. Jenny Trefren is the BLM Community
Organizer and BLM Outreach Associate for the Land or
Office of the Wyoming Wilderness Association.
She focuses on advocating for balanced BLM land uses
and has a particular emphasis for advocating
protection for undeveloped BLM lands such as
wilderness study areas, citizen’s wilderness
proposal areas, and wild and scenic rivers. Dick
Engberg is the president of the Governing Council
of the Wyoming Wilderness Association. A founder and
two-time chapter president of the Wind River
Backcountry Horsemen and is a retired professional
land surveyor. John Mionczynski is a
naturalist, a wildlife biologist, researcher,
author, musician, and has explored the northern Red
Desert in Wyoming for decades. By many accounts
John understands the issues. More about the
northern Red Desert in particular than maybe
anyone else. John, I want to start with you. To my
panel, welcome everyone. Twelve years ago a
colleague of mine wrote that few people outside of
Wyoming know about the Red Desert and that’s partly
why this national treasure is in jeopardy. Is that
still the case today? about it I think more
people would understand the issues and also be
familiar with the rare opportunities there are
there for recreation and wildlife viewing, hunting,
I would say unequaled vastness and solitude of a
pristine area. It’s kind of like a national park
where you don’t have to pay to get in and nobody
tells you what the rules are. John, when you were
a child you grew up on the east coast but you ended
up here. How and why? due to the convergence of
a few factors. First, I had a heart condition and
I could only walk short distances at a time and
one of the physiologists I saw said the best thing
you can do is walk. Well, that was in the back of my
mind. I started walking everywhere and a lot and
it was getting better. Then I always liked
deserts since several years before that I spent
some time in the Mojave Desert and fell in love
with deserts as kind of a landscape that pleases me.
A personal thing. ’67 I got drafted and I
packed up and was ready to go to the Draft Board. I
was living in Minnesota at the time and another
letter showed up just before I was to go to the
Draft Board. The letter said,■”Sorry, we countounted
the wrong number. You’re actually free.” So I went
to the Red Desert to think about things because I’d
been to visit Wyoming several times and hunted
and fished in Wyoming in ’64 and ’65 and ’67. I was
intrigued with the map and this big white spot on the
road map was the Red Desert. I didn’t know
anything about it. I thought, well, I’m not
going in the army right now, I’ll just go see this
place I’ve really been intrigued with from no
more understanding than what a road map can tell
you. Got out there and that summer fell in love
with it. We’ll get back to the many things that
you’ve done here in the Red Desert and the work
that you’ve done certainly today. Dick, I want to ask
you, you first started surveying the Red Desert
in the 1960s. 1960s, that’s correct,
yes. It was during the 1960s uranium boom. Worked
in a lot of the Red Desert Picket Lakes area
particularly, there was a prospect there. I worked
there in the winter of, I think, about 1968 and we
fought a chained up four-wheel drive pickup
into the Picket Lakes area from Riverton. Took us a
whole day. Then we did our job out there which was
staking uranium claims. did that by flying daily
in from Riverton, landing on old seismograph roads
or something on a ridge top and then working and
being picked up at the end of the day. Which we
really didn’t know whether we were going to get
picked up or not. We were prepared to spend the
night there but we didn’t have to. The Red Desert is
a tough place in the wintertime, I’ll tell you
that. you’ve helped found the
Wind River Backcountry Horsemen. To me that’s the
Wind River Range but really you’ve fallen in
love with the Red Desert and have taken many pack
trips there also. Why the interest still today? Backcountry Horseman, of
course, the name Backcountry means that
that’s where the organization does best is
in our backcountry. We’re not a riding club, we’re
not an arena club, we’re backcountry horsemen.
There’s a lot of backcountry and areas in
the Red Desert to pack trip into, take trips
into, which we did. Kind of a strange place to, to, yu
might say, pack into because there isn’t any
place to tie off. In the mountains we always had
trees to tie to so in the Red Desert you have to be
pretty careful to keep your animals picketed to
the ground. Because we also have the wild horses
in the Red Desert and sometimes we have trouble
with our stock and some of the studs in the wild
horse bunch. Sure. Jenny, I want to ask you, this
fall I asked you what your most favorite place in
Wyoming was and I was expecting an answer of The
Tetons, the Yellowstone, the Snowy Range. But it
surprised me that that’s not the case. Tell me
about your most favorite place in Wyoming. Wyoming is right around
the Honeycomb Buttes area. In a lot of ways I look
back on how I’ve grown up in Wyoming and I think I
was really set up to love the Honeycomb Buttes
throughout my life and when I found it I felt
like I was home really. I’ve had an interest in
Wyoming’s history for a really long time and
there’s no place like the northern Red Desert,
especially that really encompasses Wyoming
history and specifically Honeycomb Buttes. and the other trail
corridors that go through that area. The history of
the wildlife that’s there, the archeology that’s
there, the geology that’s there and then also the
recreational opportunities. This just
forms this perfect little package of everything that
I’m interested in, that I want to read about, that I
want to go do, that is want to look at, and where
I really want to be. To me the Red Desert is Wyoming
and I love Wyoming. the solitude that you
enjoy the most? say absolutely. If I had
to pick one characteristic of the Honeycomb Buttes in
particular in the Red Desert it would be the
solitude. In the Honeycomb Buttes you can get lost in
the little gulches and drainages and you can go
days and days without seeing anybody and if you
get lost somebody’s probably not going to find
you for several seasons. Red Desert. on I80 are looking at what
they might perceive as a wasteland but you see
something very, very different. Well, it can
look like a wasteland from Interstate 80. You’re
moving at high speed, you’re not looking
carefully at the ground. But even some territory
down in the south end of the dessert near
Interstate 80 was some of my favorite places. Red
Desert Flats is only 15 miles north of Interstate
80 and it’s fascinating in there. Even though it’s a
mono-culture of greasewood and flat ground it’s got
horned lizards and things that you could see if you
look close. place is probably
Honeycomb Buttes today. I think it’s protected now.ow.
It’s a lot different than it was 40 years ago. You
couldn’t camp most of the summer season. You
couldn’t really set up a camp down in the bottoms
between the buttes and between the escarpments
because there were sheep everywhere and you never
knew when they were going to come running through so
you camped up high on the tops of the ridges and
badlands. It’s incredibly beautiful country and I
think that’s my favorite place on the planet. On
the planet? been to many. Dick, how
about you? If you were to go anywhere in the Red
Desert and if you were to say a certain place that
you like the best, what would you tell me? I
would have to say the Oregon Buttes. I’ve been
to Honeycomb Buttes and they kind of blend
together when it gets right down to it,
Honeycomb Buttes and the Oregon Buttes. But the
Oregon Buttes to me has a larger variety of
wildlife. We have the Desert Elk. We have the
Pronghorn. We have moose. We have deer and
everything in that particular area. It’s a
little more of a variety from, you might say, your
real sagebrush lowlands up into a little higher
elevation with some trees. I kind of like the Oregon
Buttes. talk to you about your
work. essentially provide a lot
of educational resources to folks about the Red
Desert. What is your main task in what it is that
you do for the Wyoming Wilderness Association
relative to the Red Desert. Wilderness Association
would like to see a protection package put
together for the Red Desert that recognizes and
protects its current values. Something thg that
John touched on earlier that is the most critical
step to this right now, is educating people about the
Red Desert. Letting them know what’s out there.
Getting them out there. In terms of achieving that we
host public education outings every summer and
fall where we take people out on a variety of
outings. This can be a botany-based outing. This
can be a wildlife-based outing. This can just be a
driving tour or historic outing. We’ve hosted
painting workshops, photography workshops, car
camping trips. All sorts of things of that nature.
Additionally last year in conjunction with the
Wyoming Outdoor Council and the National Outdoor
Leadership School we hosted a half marathon
trail run down in the northern Red Desert as
well. Really getting over that lack of awareness of
the Red Desert, right now I see is one of the most
critical components of my job. John, what’s the
best way to do that? What’s the best way to
Does everyone think that’s a good thing, to let
people know of this no.■This area that’s
maybe not known by everyone and such an
expansive of south central Wyoming. I can’t speak
for Jenny but I imagine she went through an
evolution like I did and I imagine Dick did too.
Where there are certain little nooks and crannies
in Oregon Buttes and Honeycombs and Bush Rim
and Steamboat Mountain that you hang out there
and it becomes your personal little get-away
place. You don’t want anyone else to know about
it. I’d say through the ‘60s and half of the ‘70s
that’s the way I felt about the Red Desert. I
went out there with friends I really liked and
we’d look for fossils or we’d watch animals, watch
the elk. The reason I became an outfitter and I
was an outfitter out there for over 15 years, one of
the first outfitters in the Honeycombs, was
because in the late ‘70s there was an oil boom that
was subsidized by the government. Meaning you
didn’t necessarily have to find oil to spend a lot of
oil going to a place and putting in roads and
drilling rigs. That meant they were all over and
companies that were drilling for oil came from
other places. Mostly Texas and other states, so the
places to be explored with seismographic trucks and
rigs were gridlines on a map. Nobody had been there
to look at the ground until the trucks showed
up. respect for the land and
the land forms. I was personally offended by the
invasion of the Honeycombs in the late ‘70s. I went
and wrote some articles for High Country News.
Went to High Country New asking if anybody knew if
they could do anything and they did. They gathered up
some environmental groups and really were the first
initiative to set up the wilderness study areas
under the leadership of Bruce Hamilton that kind
of lead that charge. He was with High Country News
then. outfitter, first a guide,
to take people out there from the Teton Science
School, and described it as an ecological wonder of
Wyoming, which it is. If you come from Jackson Hole
where the Teton Science School is, it’s also a
great novelty to have close by. It only takes
three hours to drive there from Jackson and you’ve
got a completely different environment that’s just as
pristine as the national parks, maybe more so. You
don’t have congested highways or checkpoints,
gates where you have to go through and show a pass.
You can just go there and enjoy it. Wilderness Association,
you’re president of its board. Yes, I am. What’s
your take on first should parts of the Red Desert be
protected? I would assume that you would agree it
should and the best approached is should they
become wilderness areas? Is being designated a
wilderness study area adequate? Should it become
a national park? What’s your take on that? The
ability to turn part of the Red Desert into a
national park I think is long past. I think we gave
that up when we formed Teton Park. We’re not
going to have the Red Desert be a park. there. Why was that given
up so to speak? political move in order to
get Teton National Park. The congregational
delegation agreed not to form any other national
parks in the state. We gave that right up. I
think that right now in the Red Desert we have 11
wilderness study areas. They’ve been selected by
the BLM as wilderness study areas and supposedly
are supposed to be treated as wilderness until, of
course, Congress acts on the wilderness. Now,
wilderness study areas are, you might say,
administratively protected so administrative
protection does not mean anything if you’ve deal
with our public land agencies as I have over
the last years. Wilderness study areas, we would like
to see these receive the ultimate protection which
is wilderness designation by Congress. Jenny, do
you agree with that? As you understand the current
relationship as wilderness study areas in the Red
Desert, what’s your take and what’s your position
relative to the long-term solution, if you will,
protecting what’s left to protect in the Red Desert? question. The first, for
me, is and a more idealist take on it, whereas I
would say if I look at all the wilderness study areas
that are in the Red Desert it’s less than 3% of the
whole Red Desert. I think that’s a really reasonable
number to give the ultimate protection. We’re
not asking for half. We’re not asking for 75%. We’re
ultimately asking for about 230,000 acres out of
around 6 million acres. Idealistically, yes, it
would be great to protect these areas, to protect
the archeological values, or historic values, or
recreational values. I’ll also note that that helps
to preserve some of our ranching heritage because
grazing can continue in wilderness areas. if that is still possible
even if we’re talking about 3% because a lot of
times things have to be given up. Now there are
some wilderness study areas in the Red Desert
that are becoming almost islands. You see oil and
gas development completely encircling those. Whether
or not those are realistically going to
become wilderness in the future or should be,
that’s another question entirely that I’m not
quite certain on the answer yet. Mostly because
I think we’re not quite there yet on making
decisions based on that. There needs to be more
stakeholder discussion before I give a firm
answer on that. those discussions going to
occur in your eyes? What’s the BLM’s role, what’s
your organization’s role and what do you perceive
happening in the short-term, in the next
five years or so? may be refutable from
other people but I really think that the BLM’s role
in conversations like this is to provide information
to stakeholders, to be the people that have the
information on these lands and that can help give
names around and bring people together. Really
when it comes down to it the BLM is the agency that
is in charge of managing these lands for the public
and it’s the public’s decision to make how these
lands are made. I don’t think that’s it’s
necessarily within the BLM’s discretion if we’re
talking about permanent protections that come from
Congress. Rather that should come from the
public. That should come from the stakeholders.
That should come from the people that use this land
and what they want to happen. of course, to put forward
what our members’ views are for these lands. We
are a backcountry oriented organization where we look
for undeveloped BLM lands and advocate base to
protect those lands. Additionally, we would
also hope to be one of the main conveners in the
sense that we are only based in Wyoming, we’re
composed of local people, and we have a very
down-to-earth approach about what’s going on in
these areas. We would like to have open conversations
with stakeholders whether it’s oil and gas
companmpanies, whether it’s grazing associations,
anything like that and say, what do you really
need and hopefully be a key part of those
conversations. I want to thank my panel, Jenny
Trefren, Dick Engberg, and John Mionczynski for this
first part of our two-part discussion on Wyoming’s
Red Desert. We’ll explore the Red Desert more next
week on Wyoming Chronicle.

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