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The Red Zone: Wyoming’s Red Desert

As conservationists and energy developers fight over Wyoming's Red Desert, one thing is certain: There's no time like the present to hike through its unreal geography.

I crest a shallow canyon rim in southern Wyoming’s Red Desert and spook a family of six pronghorn antelope. They sprint into the sun, leaping in rhythmic bounds over desert scrub. It’s our third day of hiking; we’re seemingly lost, and several miles from our next water cache. But the antelope are so astoundingly fast and graceful that I can’t help watching them, happily letting the gravity of our situation fade for a few seconds.

Having evolved alongside the cheetah, their mortal enemy, pronghorn have supersize hearts and lungs, and can sustain speeds of 60 miles per hour for several minutes. But their flight on this May afternoon has little to do with survival: Wyoming’s pronghorn have no predators, save hunters; their behavior is triggered by bits of remnant DNA leftover from a time when cheetahs, now extinct in North America, prowled these rangelands 13,000 years ago.

Since that time, the Red Desert—a 9,375-square-mile labyrinth of canyons, hoodoos, mesas, and dunes—has seen very few visitors. Today, there are only a handful of rutted jeep roads and no trails, signage, or directional markers. And not a drop of water.
I’ve come here for a four-day, 30-mile cross-country backpacking trip with Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA) in Laramie, Wyoming. Petroleum prospectors, who’ve already established wells on the fringes of this region’s known oil reserves, hope to expand their Red Desert operations into a sprawling industrialized oil field. But Molvar and his team at the BCA want Congress to grant the Red Desert wilderness status and permanently safeguard it from development.

“The Red Desert contains some of the most spectacular geological formations anywhere on the planet and provides key habitats for rare wildlife, ranging from mountain plovers and burrowing owls to ferruginous hawks,” says Molvar. “When the oil rigs move in, the wildlife moves out.”

On our traverse of a section of the Red Desert called Adobe Town—the region’s premier hiking destination—I hope to see firsthand why this place demands preservation. At the moment, however, we’ve run headlong into a cliffy cul-de-sac and need to come up with a new plan. With the pronghorn gone, we meander around buttes and through slot canyons, then cross a dozen low saddles between grabens of slickrock. Igneous particles coat the ground and crunch like Rice Krispies beneath our boots. It’s a tour through a fantastical playground of cartoonish rock that feels organic and alive: We have stumbled into Seussville. Now if we could only find our way out.

Backpacking across one of America’s highest deserts requires tedious logistical prep work. Before setting out on foot, we drive for three hours to stash water jugs at two caches (I waypoint the locations with my GPS) along the rim of Adobe Town’s 180,000-acre canyon. We’ll traverse it from south to north. “It’s the last place here where you can take a multiday trip and not run into any oil or gas wells,” says Molvar. “The Red Desert is 6 million acres. Oil and gas projects already cover 2 million of those.”
The Red Desert is wedged into a rift valley called the Great Divide Basin. This is where the Continental Divide splits, forming the country’s longest big-game corridor. In Africa, the Red Desert would be a wildlife sanctuary or game reserve. And anywhere else in the United States, a place this geographically astounding would be made a national park. But here, subterranean pools of oil and natural gas might as well be buried cash to developers like Anadarko Petroleum and Marathon Oil, which are petitioning the Bureau of Land Management for the right to drill. (The Red Desert reportedly sits atop more than 890 million barrels of oil, as well as coal and gas.) The BLM has already allowed drilling along the edges of the proposed wilderness area, which includes Adobe Town. But industrial development here would destroy what Molvar calls “the crown jewel of the Red Desert.”

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