Thursday, June 14, 2007

Red Desert

If you look at a map of Wyoming, you’ll notice a big empty area in the southern part of the state between Rawlins and Rock Springs – few paved roads, fewer towns, no national parks, no national forests. From Highway 28 and 287 on the north to the Colorado border on the south, there’s little for a map maker to do that isn’t connected to I-80 in that part of Wyoming. But get away from the interstate, and you’ll see a little known jewel known as the Red Desert.

Some of the most spectacular areas include Adobe Town, Kilpecker Dunes, the Pinnacles, Oregon Buttes, and Honeycomb Buttes. But the most impressive thing about the Red Desert is its expansiveness. Don’t confuse expansiveness with emptiness, however. This area is home to wild horses, elk, and pronghorn aplenty. Unfortunately, it’s also home to some big league oil, gas, and coal reserves.

Much of the Red Desert is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and in these days of high fossil fuel prices and devil-may-care development policies, the BLM isn’t doing much to stand in the way of the drilling rigs.

Within the last month, the BLM approved the drilling of 2000 wells along the Atlantic Rim (located along the southeastern edge of the Red Desert). The majority of these wells are for natural gas (specifically, coal-bed methane). Coal-bed methane is natural gas that occupies the interstices of a coal seam. The methane is held in place by water pressure. To get the methane out, gas companies drill down and pump off some of the water. The reduction in water pressure allows the methane to escape and be captured by the wells. Normally, the water is just released into surface waters (which can often cause problems due to saline water), but conservationists were able to get the BLM to require reinjection of the water on the Atlantic Rim.

One potential problem on the Atlantic Rim is methane seeps. These can occur naturally, but there is some evidence that pumping by test wells in the area has led to the formation of new seeps. These are dangerous because the methane is flammable but odorless and colorless. Be careful where you light your camp stove.

Larger concerns relate to wildlife in the area. Some of the areas of highest use by mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and sage grouse are frequently the same areas targeted for drilling. And, although the oil and gas industry claims that the disturbance to wildlife will cease once the wells quit producing, the scars of development tend to be long lasting in an area that gets less than 10” of precipitation a year. Wagon tracks from stagecoach lines used 150 years ago are still visible in places.

For more information on the Red Desert (and pictures that are better than mine) try these sites:

Friends of the Red Desert
Biodiversity Conservation Alliance
National Wildlife Federation
Wyoming Outdoor Council
An article about coal-bed methane in Orion
An article about the Red Desert at NWF

Maybe not the best photographs of all time, but here are some that I took from a recent trip to the Red Desert:

Adobe Town:

And another Adobe Town (from the North Rim of Adobe Town):

The White Mountain Petroglyphs:

And Honeycomb Buttes:

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