Red Desert Caravan on Labor Day Weekend

Honeycomb Buttes After a Storm, Wyoming's Red Desert (Photo/Morgan Heim)

Who says you need to go to Africa to go on Safari?

Got this announcement today for a fun adventure in the Red Desert. I’ve been many times to all of these places and they are well worth the trip! I’ve got below a little preview of the sites and a description.

Note from Erik Molvar, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

BCA will be leading our 3-day Red Desert Caravan outing a free public outing over Labor Day weekend, September 3rd through 5th, visiting the units of a potential Red Desert National Conservation Area.

This three-day auto safari will take in Adobe Town, the Kinney Rim, and Jack Morrow Hills highlights such as the Boar’s Tusk, Killpecker Dune Fields, and Honeycomb Buttes.Auto tour with car camping and light day hikes.

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Participants can also choose to participate in an optional photography workshop on the trip.

Regional Photographer Dan Hayward will attend this Red Desert excursion and is putting together one of his outdoor photography workshops to coincide with the BCA trip.  Workshop participants will be part of the BCA group during the excursion but will spend a substantial part of each morning and evening, and each mid-day as time permits, photographing as a group and out on their own.   Things will be somewhat structured yet quite flexible!

The photography workshop includes one or two photography lecture/discussions led by Dan before the Red Desert trip, and a group photo-review/critique session after the trip.  For more workshop details and prices, please contact Dan either through any of the e-mail links on his web site at <>  or by phone at 307  742-6307.

All participants must register with BCA (regardless of whether you participate in the photography workshop or not) and get a reserved spot on the tour. Contact Erik Molvar at (307) 742-7978, or via email, to sign up.

Space is limited, so sign up today!


Wyoming’s Red Desert: A Photographic Journey

Wyoming's Red Desert: A Photographic Journey

Wyoming's Red Desert: A Photographic Journey by Erik Molvar and Laguna Wilderness Press

One of America’s most untapped wilderness experiences gets a little more accessible with the new book Wyoming’s Red Desert: A Photography Journey, edited by Erik Molvar. If you’ve never heard of the Red Desert, you should check out this book.

This 6 million acre region of southwestern Wyoming is the largest unfenced area left in the Lower 48, and one of the harshest, most remote, impressively extreme environments left to explore in the United States. For scale, think Denali National Park big, though the landscape and wildlife is much different. You can hike through the largest active sand dune system in the United States. Find dinosaur bones and explore hoodoo canyons that served as hideouts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Be careful. The only map you’re likely to take is the one you make (or the one that starts off this book). Geologic landmarks rather than signs are what will mostly light your way. I’ve got a few photos in there, but the book includes imagery from a host of talented photographers, and those few intrepid souls who’ve ventured into the “Big Empty” thus far.

Get a sneak peek of the book here –> LWP_RedDesert_R1

You can buy the book here.

Greater sage grouse worth endangered species listing, but other species come first

There’s only so much room on the endangered species list, and greater sage grouse will have to wait in line a little longer to receive protection. A report released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declares that the bird is heading towards extinction and warrants listing, but does not take priority for designation as about 250 other species are in more immediate danger.

The announcement serves notice to land managers and the energy industry to bulk up conservation efforts for the grouse, but these efforts will take place without the backing power of listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, when combined with successful state and federal strategies, hold the key to the long-term survival of the greater sage-grouse,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland in a press release.

Across the West, greater sage grouse populations dwindled to about 56 percent of their former range. In places like Wyoming’s Red Desert, key habitat for the grouse and an energy development hotspot, populations dropped 90 percent in the last 50 years, according to Lorraine Keith, public affairs officer with the Rock Springs office of the Bureau of Land Management. This 90 percent drop isn’t just because of energy development, the decline started before the energy boom, said Keith. But if the trends of the last 50 years continue, many populations will disappear in the next 30 to 100 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The downside of the ruling is that precluding the grouse from listing relies on industry and state agencies to take the necessary management steps to stop the bird’s decline, a practice which so far has left sage grouse shaking in their leks. But the ruling does make conservation efforts for the bird a priority, especially if industry would like development to continue in the West.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a press release. “This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources. Voluntary conservation agreements, federal financial and technical assistance and other partnership incentives can play a key role in this effort.”

Though not listed this time, the federal government has their eye on greater sage grouse. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is adding the greater sage grouse to the endangered species candidate list and will undertake annual reviews of the bird in an effort to make sure it doesn’t slip over the edge to extinction.

While not a perfect outcome for the conservation community, the ruling gives them hope for the bird. “Up to this point we’ve seen plans that predict continued sage grouse declines,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, “but hopefully this decision will be the wake-up call that’s needed to turn things around and compel corporate interests like the oil industry to start using advanced technologies to achieve major reductions in impacts on the sage grouse, other wildlife, and the American West as a whole.”

Red Desert’s Adobe Town wins a pardon from natural gas leasing

Adobe Town

Adobe Town's maze of hoodoos remain relatively unexplored. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Adobe Town wins a reprieve from natural gas leasing in its Citizen’s Proposed Wilderness. The Bureau of Land Management removed 15 parcels comprising more than 14,800 acres of Adobe Town from the December lease sale.

“It’s breath of fresh air the Bureau of Land Management has decided to draw a line in the sand and not lease away one of our most cherished places,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel at The Wilderness Society in a press release.  “This is proof when people from all walks of life stick up for a special spot, we can move mountains and ensure new generations Americans will always have a place to hunt, camp and hike.”

Much of the rock in Adobe Town is really just sandstone, easily eroded or crumbled away. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Abobe Town’s labyrinth of hoodoos and canyons make it reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, except  in Adobe Town, there are no trails to guide your way. Wyoming declared the area “very rare or uncommon” in 2007, a designation that afforded the land some protection, but not from future oil and gas development. Adobe Town has been one of the most hotly contested regions of the Red Desert, receiving 89,000 comments mostly in favor of its protection during the revision of the Great Divide land-use plan. But leasing continued.

The removal in November of the 15 nominated parcels from the BLM lease marks parts of Adobe Town as too environmentally important to warrant leasing at this time.

Pronghorn munch on sage brush just outside Adobe Town in Wyoming's Red Desert.(Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

“This lease deferral is the first sign that the BLM has started to listen, and could mark the dawn of a new day when oil and gas development proceeds cautiously, and crown jewel landscapes like Adobe Town get the protection they deserve,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in a press release. “The BLM deserves credit for making a sound decision.”

Into the Big Empty: Wyoming’s Red Desert goes live on YouTube

Journey into Wyoming’s Red Desert, a little known wilderness the size of Denali National Park that brings the steppes of Mongolia to America’s backyard. Here, energy companies vie for the desert’s riches in a world of 50,000 pronghorn, herds of wild horses and some of the most unforgiving landscapes of the West. Come learn of this place and the struggles to protect it as you travel Into the Big Empty.

Author of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ pens book on Red Desert

The Red Desert earns some well-deserved attention in the new 412 page book Red Desert: History of a Place, written  by Annie Proulx, author of such notable works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain. The desert and Annie Proulx are featured in last month’s issue of High Country News.

I have to say that I’m thrilled there is a sizable article out there about the Red Desert. The article is beautifully written and accompanied by some of the photographs from the book, taken by Martin Stupich. While the attention to the desert is nice, Proulx seems to be coming from the perspective that the desert is a curious place, raw, unknown, not particularly beautiful and perhaps a wilderness already lost.

Take this excerpt from the HCN article:

“This is the story that Proulx tells — that writing about a third of Red Desert: History of a Place,…, was a task inspired by curiosity rather than love. That the end result, including Stupich’s photographs and contributions from a dozen Wyoming scholars on the desert’s history, geology, hydrology, plants, animals and insects, is more an elegy than a plea for conservation.”

It’s true what she says about the desert being a hard place to love. It is more awe-inspiring than anything else, partly just to think of the overwhelming amount of creatures that have adapted to live out there, including people. It’s a place you go and immediately feel vulnerable.

Proulx’s position about the desert is interesting. She almost revels in the harshness of this place and the perpetual presence of man, then docks the environmentalists for trying to paint a picture of the desert as a “calendar” destination.

“There is an air of unreality about many efforts to protect the Red Desert, perhaps because (conservationists’) reasons for wanting to save the area seem to be largely based on beauty, solace of the wild and exquisite ephemeral qualities.” (HCN, April 13, 2009)

I can see the merit of her argument, that to portray the desert as beautiful and devoid of human presence would be deceptive, but so is the other extreme. (Maybe she is trying reverse psychology to get people to care about this place.) But I do think the answer is more in the middle.

One of the biggest flaws I think the U.S. has when it comes to land management  is this separating of man from the concept of nature or wilderness. Folks from the BLM will tell you that if a place has been changed by man, it can no longer be considered for wilderness designation. This immediately puts managers in an “it’s either us or the nature” mindset, instead of figuring ways to better integrate our existence so that it doesn’t take over the environment.

The Red Desert is a land that hangs on to any change that happens to it, especially the man-made variety. (You can still see wagon ruts from people crossing the Oregon Trail.) I imagine this thinking could be part of why the environmentalists in the desert want to show all the beautiful and unspoiled areas.

In Proulx’s mind, it sounds like the desert is already gone.

‘”It’s not going to be saved. It’s not possible to save it,” Proulx says, matter-of-factly. “This is Wyoming; it’s an energy state. The best we can hope for is that part of it not be given over to oil and gas extraction. We’ll see how that one goes,” she says. “I’m  not holding my breath.”‘(HCN, April 13, 2009)

Overall, it’s exciting that a place hard to love is getting some airtime and being portrayed as undeniably magnetic, even if it’s not always pretty to look at. But it can be beautiful, just as it is harsh and flawed and undeniably marked by man. And unlike Proulx, I don’t think it’s too late for the desert. It’s just hard to think that way when no one knows it exists.

Drilling the Atlantic Rim



Wildflowers bloom along the Red Desert's Atlantic Rim. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

  If there was a portion of the Red Desert considered lush, the Atlantic Rim would be the place. Here, along the desert’s easternmost edge, rolling hills of sagebrush, green covered buttes and mountains also hide pockets of aspen and a surprising diversity of wildflowers.

      In March 2007, the Bureau of Land Management approved plans to allow mass-scale drilling within the Atlantic Rim. The Atlantic Rim Natural Gas Project covers about 270,000 acres of the Red Desert, and would provide more than 1,300 billion cubic feet of natural gas – enough gas for about 19 million homes for one year. And the BLM estimates that this project would yield almost $1 billion in taxes and royalties. There are already pilot wells within the Atlantic Rim, and this project will allow about 2,000 wells to be drilled in the future.

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