SI Vault
Jim Doherty
May 17, 1982
The stakes are high—economically and environmentally—as Wyoming's vast mineral wealth begins to he dealt out
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May 17, 1982

Wyoming Plays Its Hole Card

The stakes are high—economically and environmentally—as Wyoming's vast mineral wealth begins to he dealt out

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The Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation went for the deal because, according to federation lawyer Tom Lustig, "We really had nothing to gain by suing for an EIS and we at least had something to gain from the research agreement." The agreement got the oil companies out from under the pressure and expense of a long battle. It got the BLM off the hook. And it got Riddle, whose department would be excluded from doing the research, mad as hell. "That so-called agreement," he thundered after it was signed, "is just a pig in a poke...."

"What happened was that the environmentalists got bought off," charged one Game and Fish Department official.

"No, we just took the best deal we could get," replied Ron Smith, who negotiated the agreement for the conservationists.

If it accomplished nothing else for the developers, the controversial agreement succeeded in splitting the ranks of the environmentalists. Riddle was seen by his erstwhile colleagues as "a crybaby clinging to an extremist position," as one of them put it. And Smith, who originally was one of the hotheads Riddle was worried about, assumed the role of conciliator and mediator with the opposition. On the shoals of such role reversals, real or imagined, do conservation coalitions founder.

Today, nothing else has changed much around Evanston as a result of either the research project, which has yet to get off the ground, or the oil glut that has slowed exploration elsewhere in the West. Though the rate of drilling has fallen off somewhat in the past three months, the Evanston boom goes on. Hundreds of unemployed laborers continue to pour into town. One local environmentalist refers to the emigrants as "criminals and creepy-crawlies." Some may fit that description, but many of the newcomers are law-abiding citizens who would rather try to find an honest job in Wyoming than go on the unemployment rolls back in their home states.

One sunny afternoon three such men from Neilsville, Wis. sipped beer at the Whirl Inn Disco, a rowdy hangout on the western edge of Evanston, and talked over the job situation in the oilfields. Chuck York, 27, George Murphy, 38, and John Phillips, 31, had driven out together the week before. Phillips was already employed as a "floorman," wrestling pipe on a drilling rig near Whitney Canyon. A quiet, clean-cut former foundry worker, Phillips had to leave his wife and two children back home in Wisconsin. He was working the second shift, putting in 56 hours and making about $1,000 a week, including subsistence pay. Murphy hadn't been making ends meet as a tavern owner in Neilsville, and so he decided to see if he could save up a bankroll in Wyoming. York, an erstwhile paratrooper, steeplejack and bartender, carries a snapshot of a woman he lived with for a while in Iowa who had tattoos all over her body, including her left buttock, which was stamped: GRADE-A U.S. PRIME. "It's now or never," he said of their job prospects, parking his toothpick in his beard and ordering up another Pabst. "Folks round here say the population is going to double again in the next six months."

Their differences over strategy notwithstanding, Riddle and Smith both worry about the same thing these days: where it will all lead and what will be left when the oil and gas are gone 20, 30 or 40 years from now. Smith recently spent part of a cold morning tramping through a ghost town in the Bear River Divide called Cumberland, where his maternal great-grandfather was killed in a mine explosion that ended a fabulous coal boom. A pragmatic young entrepreneur ran a saloon and a bawdy house in Cumberland, and even now the house—an impressive two-story building of stone-block construction—retains a hint of decadent elegance. The hardwood floors are partly intact, and upstairs, where the ladies entertained the gentlemen, delicate stenciling can still be seen on the violet walls. Not far away, a dilapidated bridge spans Muddy Creek, and as Smith stood above the water and gazed out at the ridges, a loose door back in town banged forlornly in the wind.

"The West has seen a lot of boom-towns come and go," he mused aloud. "I wonder if we'll ever learn the difference between plundering the land and developing it."

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