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Phil Riddle, 42, comes from that conservative society of Western gentlemen who revere their grandparents, preach the virtues of hard work and simple pleasures, and view wilderness experiences in a fundamentally mystical way. Deep-voiced and laconic, Riddle wears a uniform consisting of cowboy boots, jeans, a holstered revolver, a string tie and a warden's shirt. He generally also sports a pair of shiny sunglasses that make it hard to see what his eyes are doing. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to Evanston when he was six. His stepfather, a part-Indian railroad engineer nicknamed Chief, used to take him deer hunting up in the Divide. Riddle married young, had two daughters, spent six years in the Air Force and worked his way through college as a fire fighter, a butcher and a cop. He signed on as a game warden and had his share of run-ins with knife-wielding poachers and armed psychopaths. But he also enjoyed a spell at a station that encompassed an area of about 80 X 15 miles up north, where he spent a lot of solitary time patroling in the mountains on horseback.
"Living like that," he says, "you become a part of the country, almost like an animal. Your senses become acute. You can smell when an elk or a mountain lion has passed by. You can read animal signs better, you can hear better, you can almost feel things you've never felt before. It's the most exhilarating thing in the world."
When Riddle took over as supervisor three years ago, he knew the Overthrust Belt, not enforcement, would take up most of his time. He's working with his staff of 12 to collect data on habitat destruction, wildlife populations, reproduction and behavior that can be used to help slow down or redirect future development. "This oil thing took off so fast we still haven't caught up to it," he says. "But from now on we're going to have some influence on what happens."
Riddle has already had some influence. Two years ago the BLM proposed to approve plans submitted by Chevron and Amoco for the two new natural-gas plants in Whitney Canyon. The scheme involved extensive facilities, but the most controversial aspect was a 28-mile railroad spur. It was routed right down the middle of a valley used for centuries by big-game animals as a major migration route and wintering area, and it cut through one of the most important bald-eagle winter roosting areas in the West. It would have bisected several important streams and obliterated a number of sage grouse strutting and nesting areas. When Riddle found out about the spur, he organized a tour through the area for state wildlife officials, environmentalists and media people.
The comment and publicity resulting from that trip elicited a prompt response. A couple of dozen oil people flew out from Denver for a special meeting. Riddle told them the railroad idea was "flat-out unacceptable." They asked for alternatives, and he gave them some. The railroad spur was dropped.
That was the first time environmentalists and wildlife people were able to dig in their heels on an issue and win, but, ironically, BLM and Minerals Mining Service officials say they may have done more harm than good. "That railroad would have been a lot better all around than the pipelines and truck hauling that will replace it," insists John Fraher, district engineer at the Minerals Mining Service's Rock Springs office. "The oil companies just got blackjacked, that's all." The BLM still defends the railroad spur as a prudent idea. "The same kinds of fears and concerns were expressed about the Alaska pipeline," says Don Sweep, who heads up the BLM's Rock Springs office. "And that turned out to be relatively O.K."
But the Alaska pipeline was, thanks to the enormous pressure put on by environmentalists, the most carefully planned and monitored energy construction project in history. The railroad idea, says Dick Randall, a regional representative of the Defenders of Wildlife, typifies the lack of planning and sensitivity that has characterized the Bear River Divide boom from the outset. "I just can't understand how it has been possible for ail of this to happen without an EIS," Randall says. "Somewhere, something is rotten."
There is a wide moat of distrust between many environmentalists, who mutter darkly about the BLM and the U.S. Geological Survey department "selling out" to the oil companies, and bureaucrats who complain about "uncompromising obstructionists." Things got off to a rocky start shortly after Don Sweep arrived in Rock Springs in 1980 to take over as the new head man at the BLM. Bob Rogers dropped by for a visit and mentioned that Earl Thomas, the longtime head of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, had called the Overthrust Belt "an environmental tragedy." Sweep looked blankly at Rogers and asked, "Who is Earl Thomas?" Rogers reported the remark, and Sweep has yet to live it down.
A tall, cautious career bureaucrat, Sweep rejects the charge that the BLM shows favoritism to the oil companies. "If we have any bias at all," he insists, "it is for the environment. On the other hand, we're responsible for issuing and overseeing leases to explore and recover minerals on our lands. That is part of our job." Sweep portrays the BLM as an agency squeezed between environmentalists and the oil industry, which of course it is. It does issue detailed stipulations to drillers. But even Sweep concedes that if the BLM had it to do over, it would handle the development on the Overthrust Belt "somewhat differently."
In fairness to the BLM and other agencies, petroleum development is a hellishly untidy and uncertain process. Geologists haven't yet refined the art of locating oil and gas fields into anything close to an exact science. At present, some 50 or 60 seismography firms are working in the Overthrust Belt. They keep their findings secret and sell them to the highest bidder. Public and private ownership of lands in part of the area is checker-boarded, and the BLM has little control over what happens on private lands. When one driller strikes pay dirt, others try to hit the same field. The oil companies say that they never know how much oil or gas they've got until it's pumped out, which makes planning all but impossible for local and state officials. Environmentalists contend the companies do have accurate estimates but keep them confidential for competitive reasons.