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For a Week's Worth of Gas

The Bush energy plan has opened some of the West's last best places to oil and gas drilling. The wildlife of Wyoming's Upper Green River Valley will never be the same.

Early in the 20th century Americans almost lost their pronghorns to uncontrolled market hunting. Now they may lose them to uncontrolled development of public land. A century ago we didn't understand the cost; now we do. The ongoing sacrifice of pronghorns is a purposeful act of government. It is also illegal.

By law, BLM must manage the public's land for "multiple use." But under the Bush administration, energy extraction has become a dominant use that precludes others such as hiking, fishing, hunting, bird-watching, and even livestock grazing. At least one BLM state director (in Utah) has issued a written directive that facilitating gas-drilling applications is the "No. 1 priority." For the past four years the Pinedale field office has done virtually nothing but facilitate drilling applications. Yet when I met with the field office's manager, Prill Mecham, she denied that this was so, explaining that, while BLM manages for gas in some places, it manages for things like wilderness in others.

True, but there is no designated wilderness in the Pinedale Resource Area. What's more, the Bush administration has decreed (unlawfully, say environmental groups) that there will be no more land protected as wilderness anywhere, even in Alaska. For now the pronghorns are safe if, on their fall migration, they make it to the relatively snowless Red Desert. But even before the administration's ban on new wilderness, BLM successfully opposed efforts to save the gas-rich Red Desert with wilderness or other designations. Wildlife doesn't appear to be very high on Mecham's priority list. When I asked her if her agency, the state, or the gas companies were studying how traffic, seismic testing, fracing, drilling din, and lights affect the physical condition of ungulates trying to survive the already stressful winter of this high, cold desert, she said she thought they were. They are not.

BLM had known about the dangers of pinching off bottlenecks, and Mecham had even said publicly that gas companies should stay out of them. Yet in the summer of 2002, her office offered 2,660 acres for lease in and around Trappers' Point, the most critical bottleneck. After strenuous protest from the public and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, BLM rescinded the leases. When I asked Mecham if BLM would protect bottlenecks, she said she "couldn't speculate on that."

In Pinedale I interviewed Gordon Johnston, chairman of the Sublette county commission, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel with a chiseled face and eyes the color of worn rifle bluing. Even in Wyoming you can't get much more conservative than Johnston. He is standing by his man, George W. Bush, and he appreciates the wealth the gas companies have brought the valley. But he also appreciates (in fact, adores) wildlife. So he consistently casts unpopular and losing votes -- against subdividing agricultural land in migration corridors, for example. "As a young man I cowboyed out in the Jonah Field," he told me. "It was a fun place to live and work, and it saddens me to see it the way it is now.... The opinion of a lot of folks was screw the antelope; they'll find a way around the bottlenecks. Well, they won't and they don't. When you squeeze them, the population decreases."

The agency's flouting of its multiple-use mandate is as bad or worse elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain West. Consider the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming -- nearly as important to wildlife and fish as the Upper Green River Valley and no less blighted by unregulated gas development. The drilling method here is new -- basically an experiment on nature in which methane is released from coal seams by pumping out groundwater. Already there are 10,000 coal-bed methane wells in the basin, and now the Bush administration is proposing 65,000 new ones, 26,000 miles of new roads, 52,000 miles of new pipelines, and 1,000 new compressors. Rivers, springs, and aquifers are drying up as water is sucked from the earth. The "produced" water, as it's called, is contaminated with poisons that are sterilizing the landscape, wiping out plants on which livestock and wildlife depend, and killing fish and other aquatic life.

It's not just environmentalists who are exercised about the abandonment of "multiple use" and the sacrifice of public land and water. Powder River Basin ranchers have formed an alliance with environmentalists; together, they're suing the feds. Also lining up with environmentalists are sportsmen -- generally a conservative lot, easily seduced by politicians who dress in camo and flounce around at photo ops with borrowed shotguns and fishing rods. They voted overwhelmingly for Bush after he'd gone bass fishing and dove hunting and after his campaign had told them Gore would take away their guns. But now they're having second thoughts.

Avid sportsman Stoney Burk of Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front -- a coalition of hunters, anglers, ranchers, and business owners trying to control the gas rush across wild country in northwest Montana -- told me this: "God knows how many deer and antelope drink from these toxic water pits and run off and die. Look at the network of roads that disturb habitat and break migratory patterns, and put that together with the potential to destroy the whole fish population; I consider the administration's behavior criminal.

"I'm angry about this," Burk continued. "The public is being cut out. I voted for Bush. Now I'm ashamed I did. They have betrayed the confidence of millions of people.... We're talking about an invasion of our last remaining wildlands, destruction of our last remaining fish and wildlife habitat. For what? At the very most a week's worth of gas."

"Are drastically altered and industrialized landscapes places we want to hunt and fish?" asks Trout Unlimited's David Stalling.

Field & Stream -- one of the oldest, largest, and most conservative hook-and-bullet publications in the nation -- used to devote oceans of ink to the alleged threats of "anti-hunters" and gun-control advocates. Now it warns its readers about the Bush administration's assault on fish and wildlife habitat. In the March 2004 issue, for example, Ted Kerasote blasted the administration for issuing gas-drilling permits before planning and public comment. "With deep ties to the oil and gas industry," wrote Kerasote, "Bush and Cheney have unleashed a national energy plan that has begun to destroy hunting and fishing on millions of federal acres throughout the West, setting back effective wildlife management for decades."

I saw what Kerasote is complaining about when, on my way to observe gas drilling in New Mexico last December, I stopped to check out the "gold medal" trout section of the Animas River, a stretch I had long wanted to fish. As I neared the bank I was clobbered by the stench of rotten eggs -- hydrogen sulfide venting from gas wells. But rotten eggs is what you want to smell in gas fields. The human nose reacts differently to hydrogen sulfide in higher concentrations -- so if you smell frying honey, hold your breath, hit the dirt, and crawl away fast or, with the next breath, you're dead.

In New Mexico's part of the San Juan Basin there are already 18,000 operating gas wells just on federal land. At pad after pad I found major violations -- broken fencing around evaporation ponds, sediments bleeding into trout streams, inadequate or nonexistent replanting, junipers and pinyons burned during gas flaring and killed with coal dust. Because BLM lacks the staff for adequate enforcement, a local public interest outfit called the San Juan Citizens Alliance decided to produce a guide to help the public identify violations. BLM officials expressed grave reservations. Such information, they explained, might encourage hikers, anglers, hunters, birders, and the like to venture onto their land, where they might be exposed to deadly fumes leaking from all the gas wells.

Rancher Chris Velasquez of Blanco, New Mexico, showed me gas wells on his BLM grazing allotment, where pumps, extracting groundwater to aid gas flow, were leaking antifreeze. In this arid landscape, standing liquid is swilled by wildlife and livestock. Deer and small mammals travel a few hundred yards before they die, but cattle often don't even make it off the drill pad. Velasquez lost eight cows in seven days.

Tweeti Blancett of Aztec, New Mexico, loses cattle, too. "This whole county is a disaster area," she told me. "Our water is polluted, our air is polluted, our ground is polluted. They've ruined our ranch." Blancett, northern New Mexico's campaign coordinator for George W. Bush in the last election, isn't about to stump for him again. She used to fight with environmentalists. Now she speaks at Sierra Club meetings and has joined the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

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