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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It looked like Spain, but it was Wyoming.... The soil of the hills was red, the sage grew in gray clumps, and as the road rose we could see across the hills and away across the plain of the valley to the mountains.
Wine of Wyoming

Hemingway was probably the savviest outdoorsman ever to write a great American novel, and for a spell early in his career, Wyoming was his favorite retreat. In the early '30s Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, spent several long vacations there at Lawrence and Olive Nordquist's dude ranch up near the Montana border. When he wasn't working on a new book, he was usually off fishing with Ivan Wallace, a stubby wrangler who always wore a big Stetson, or hunting bears and elk with Chub Weaver, or scaring up sage grouse with some of the other ranch hands. One summer the state started to build a highway over a nearby pass, and Hemingway panicked because he was afraid it would ruin the hunting. One road!

That was 50 years ago. Since then, several generations of hunters, fishermen, backpackers, mountain climbers and tourists have consecrated Wyoming as a national cathedral of wilderness. It could never be mistaken for any profane or ordinary place. Its glowing mountain ranges—the Absarokas, the Salt River and the Wind River, the Bighorns and the Tetons—are among the most glorious in all the West. Its surging rivers—the Powder, the Snake, the Belle Fourche, the Green, the Sweetwater and the Cheyenne—hold large populations of cutthroat trout, browns and rainbows. Possibly no other state, except Alaska, boasts more spectacular numbers of wildlife. The world's largest populations of pronghorn antelope, Shiras moose and sage grouse are in Wyoming. So are North America's greatest concentrations of bighorn sheep and elk, some of the finest mule-deer herds in the West and the largest concentration—about 200 to 400 in the Greater Yellowstone area—of grizzly bears left in the lower 48 states.

But even with all of its creatures, the Cowboy State is no Peaceable Kingdom these days. Once the country's most neglected state, it has now become one of the boomingest. Since 1970, and mostly during the past five years, its population has mushroomed 40%. Wyoming now ranks fourth on the list of fastest-growing states, right behind Nevada, Arizona and Florida. It still looks a lot like Spain, but that road Hemingway fretted about has turned out to be a harbinger after all.

"It's getting to be more and more like Pittsburgh around here all the time," grumbles Phil Riddle, a gun-toting, tobacco-chewing state wildlife official.

The reason is oil and minerals. Wyoming has an abundance of them: probably more oil, natural gas, coal, uranium ore and trona, or soda ash, than any other state. The rush is on to get those goods to market. In 1980 Wyoming mined 90.5 million tons of coal, 5.3 million tons of uranium ore and 12 million tons of trona. It also produced nearly 450 million cubic feet of natural gas and almost 125 million barrels of oil. Most people still think of Wyoming principally in terms of livestock production, but petroleum has been its No. 1 product since the 1950s. Back then, much of its oil, gas and other mineral reserves were so hard to get at, or of such poor quality, that it hardly paid to go after them. But in 1973 along came the OPEC oil embargo and, with it, growing concern about the nation's vulnerability to other mineral boycotts. Suddenly the value of Wyoming's previously "unprofitable" reserves soared, and the state has been on a binge ever since.

The new prosperity has taken its toll of the pristine qualities that made Wyoming so special for so long. Boomtowns, strip-mining and oil exploration are disfiguring the land from Gillette in the north to Rock Springs and Green River in the south. Pollution, litter, overcrowding and crime are no longer some other state's problems. Having discovered the joys of industrialization, Wyoming is now getting acquainted with the sorrows.

Nowhere are those sorrows more profound than in the Bear River Divide, a picturesque collection of arid hills and buttes in the southwestern corner of the state. In just 3½ years a frenzy of drilling for oil and gas there has transformed 100 square miles of crucial big-game wintering range into what one environmentalist calls "a petrological wasteland." At the foot of the Divide, the once-sleepy little town of Evanston is struggling to stay above a rising tide of problems. Since 1975 its population has more than doubled to about 10,500. Its schools and hospital are swamped. Trailer parks sprawl on all sides. Roustabouts pour into town from the oil fields and squatters set up housekeeping in shacks, tents, even abandoned cars along nearby streams and waterholes. The police are hard pressed to keep up with all the burglaries, brawls, family feuds and trespassing complaints. "Take a good look around," says Ron Smith, chairman of the national resources committee of the 25,000-member Wyoming Wildlife Federation. "This is what the rest of the Rockies could look like in 20 years."

True. Wyoming isn't the only mountain state in the throes of development. The search for energy has become the new Manifest Destiny all over the West. From Texas, Arizona and Utah to Colorado, Idaho and Montana, teams of geologists, surveyors, seismographers and drillers are scouring the land. "They've got drills coming down the chute until hell won't have 'em," laments Charles Jonkel, a grizzly-bear researcher and wildlife biologist at the University of Montana at Missoula. "Some of the best wildlife habitat on the eastern front of the Rockies is up for grabs."

In the nation's capital, the Reagan Administration has declared itself well satisfied with the emphasis on development, except for one thing: It wants to step up the tempo even more on public lands. The oil glut and high interest rates have worked against that notion lately—some wildcatters have actually gone broke—but most observers see that only as a lull in the storm.

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