The bright red Cessna gains elevation and skirts verdant green ridgelines and eastern facing ramparts, over rolling tundra as Afton, Wyoming disappears from view. The gentle alpine landscape tapers at the southern end, giving way to the sagebrush desert in the Upper Green River Basin. I lean out just a little to compose a shot as the first gas rig comes into view. Surreal and strangley out of place, the drilling rig occupies the top of a ridge, with a connecting road and massive gas operation consuming the remainder of the ridge. The alpine zone has missed much of the drilling boom, but here in Wyoming’s namesake range, Riley Ridge has been industrialized.
I’m flying with Chris Boyer, owner of Kestrel Air Services, one of the volunteer pilots who make up LightHawk, a 31 year old organization that flies for conservation. LightHawk has pilots across the U.S. and their “mission is to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.” They fly endangered species, biologists, photographers, and conservation leaders. The perspective from the missing door – taken off for me to make images – is indeed unique, and I can’t believe my good fortune to be flying over this remarkable Western landscape. Chris, an accomplished photographer in his own right, commuted down from Bozeman just to fly this mission.
America’s push for energy development combined with advancement of fracking technolgy has hit Wyoming particularly hard. There were few wells around Pinedale in 2000. Today, the Jonah Gas Field, between Big Piney and Highway 191 has been completely sacrificed to industrial energy development. The network of roads, storage facilities, chemical waste ponds, and powerlines almost make the drilling pads seem less significant from our raptor’s viewpoint. At LaBarge, there’s no drilling going on now, but all of the development has completely fragmented the flaxen landscape. We drift over the New Fork River with rigs right next to the water, putting an exclamation point on water quality concerns. The Pinedale Anticline, a north-south running ridge is active with drilling, and we make close-up images of drilling rigs with a backdrop of the Wind River Range and tiny Pinedale, which now exceeds Federal air quality standards in winter. We’re able to communicate through our headsets and Chris positions the airplane perfectly as I focus on straight horizons while trying to hold the camera steady.
We continued north over residential development north of Pinedale to the Upper Green, a wholly different and wild landscape where the river snakes from the Winds on its journey to the confluence with the Colorado in Utah’s Canyonlands. Migrating pronghorn, mule deer and elk have a tough time navigating the developed areas en-route to winter range and there’s a lot of attention focused on the Upper Green. The contrast from the Jonah, LaBarge, and the Pinedale Anticline gas fields to this area, with one of the great rivers of the West winding between buttes and wide open wrinkled ranchland, is striking. I wanted to photograph “The 44” a 44,072 acre contested area in the Wyoming Range that has been leased for drilling. In the fading evening light we would have to save it for the next day.
Camped by the red Cessna, waiting out a thunderstorm while making coffee under a wing, Chris monitored the storm’s track on his GPS. Ever the optimist and committed conservationist, he thought we’d still be able to fly with the violent storm moving towards the Tetons. I guess that’s how it is with LightHawk, stick with it until the mission is completed. We took off with sun breaking through thick clouds, storm light on the Wyoming Range. We circled LaBarge again, just to make sure that I had the gas drilling images I needed in the transition zone at the southern end of the range. With the impressive storm moving over the Tetons, we headed for The 44 and Upper Hoback area. Cotton ball clouds hung over the roadless green landscape of meadow and forest. The skyline in my images included the tiny point of a distant Grand Teton, a reminder that this should remain a contiguous wilderness. I tried to calculate exactly where the drilling would be, but making landmarks in the unfamiliar and unbroken landscape was challenging and I knew I’d have to visit on foot. I tried to absorb the rarity of this place, the Tetons, Winds, and Gros Ventre all in my field of view, and make sense of drilling our wildest landscapes. We finished our mission and Chris headed home in that beautful bright red plane. I would head for the other side of the mountains.
North Horse Creek rises from Wyoming big sagebrush into the aspen fringe ranchland before giving way to pine forest below Lookout Peak. I packed camera gear in a hurry while dining from a cooler, mosquitos swarming in the late summer air. Storms crackled to the south and seemed to be moving away, but I couldn’t tell from the forest at the trailhead. I took off, hiking fast, not knowing how far I’d get before sunset. I had run out of bug juice, and put on a long-sleeved shirt while rubbing dirt on my face, in my ears. Fields of lupine and open meadows helped take my mind off the all-out assault of the blood-thirsty bugs. With light to spare, I found myself on the summit ridge of Lookout Peak, in the heart of the contested area and close to the South Rim unit, slated for 136 gas drilling rigs. I made it to the mountain top and a slight breeze gave a much needed break from insects so I could focus on photography. Storms boiled over the Winds and southwest Wyoming Range. There was no sound in the fading cinammon honey light. I put away my gear, stood in the silence and muttered, then yelled WHY? I talked to imaginary bears on my way out as the wilderness quickly faded to black. A great gray owl escorted me to trail’s end, a reminder that this wild place, too special to drill, is part of the Greater Yellowstone.
The fate of the 44,072 acre contested area is currently in the hands of the US Forest Service. The nearby South Rim unit, leased for 136 wells, is scheduled for a draft Environmental Impact Statement in the next 30 days. A public comment period will follow and the USFS will have final decision of whether to despoil and further fragment the area with a new industrial zone. In addition to Chris Boyer and LightHawk, I’d like to thank Wyoming Outdoor Council for kindly guiding me by phone, sharing information and maps, while doggedly contesting drilling in the Wyoming Range. Citizens For The Wyoming Range have also done a great job of galvanizing people who recreate in the range, including hunters, hikers, and birders. And just so we don’t demonize the federal agencies, it’s important to note that both the BLM and USFS regional offices have been very open and helped inform this post. I’ll be following developments closely, so please visit often for updates.
Special Thanks to American Wildlands for this map.