Valley Girl

One woman takes a stand against energy prospecting in Wyoming.

By Gabriel Furshong

Linda Baker, Upper Green Valley Coalition

The Upper Green River Valley in northwestern Wyoming is a vast network of rivers and streams that feed into seven million acres. The massive expanse is home to countless species of animals, including thousands of mule deer and pronghorn antelope. But the valley’s oil and gas deposits are also immense, and since President Bush ordered federal agencies to expedite leasing and permits to drill in 2003, wells have multiplied from a few hundred to more than 4,000.

In the heart of the valley sits the town of Pinedale, where beaver trappers historically converged for the legendary Green River Rendezvous. More recently however, Pinedale and its environs have become the gathering place for thousands of workers on the valley’s oil and natural gas rigs.

“It’s not our town anymore,” says Linda Baker from her one-room office above a local tavern on Pine Street. Baker began defending the valley from energy prospecting more than 20 years ago. Now, she is the grassroots organizer of the Upper Green Valley Coalition, a group of organizations dedicated to balancing energy development with land conservation in the region.

Plenty caught up with Baker to talk about the impacts of the oil and gas boom.

What was Pinedale like before the recent natural gas boom?
I came here 27 years ago, and at that time Pinedale was primarily a cow town. It was a quiet place in the winter, and the valley was filled with wildlife all the time. There were cattle drives down Pine Street and everybody knew everybody else. Then the Jonah field started in 1999 with a proposal for 75 wells.

How has Pinedale changed since then?
At first everyone said, “Great. It’s just a little field, enough to create a cash-flow and generate some jobs.” But 75 wells became 497 wells, and 497 wells became about 3500 wells. And then the Pinedale Anticline started, just south of town, with a proposal for 900 wells.Every well requires about 75 people to drill it. Then there are the service companies that are hired to haul the water and build the roads.. Everything that a town needs to sustain its population is overflowing— our police department and our fire department are completely overwhelmed. And locals are saying, “Where are my friends? Where are my neighbors?”

Recent studies have revealed severe impacts on mule deer and sage grouse from energy development in the Pinedale area. What impacts have you seen?
This valley has Serengeti-like wildlife populations. More than 100,000 ungulates spend the winter in the valley or migrate through it. But people are in denial about the 46 percent decline in the mule deer population and the 51-92 percent decline in sage grouse.

The Jonah field started at 160-acre spacing, then it became 40-acre spacing, then 20, and now it’s down to between 5 to10-acre spacing. In other words, the wells are right up against one another. There’s no habitat left.

How has this situation affected local opinions on energy development?
People in the valley thought it was fine when energy development was out there in the desert. Now, these same people are starting to say, “Wait a minute. You want to go to the Upper Green?” It’s a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, intensive development is occurring. Fortunately, more people are becoming active.

What successes have you had?
We managed for the first time to effectively protest some leasing that was going on in an area where wildlife-friendly fencing had been built to facilitate mule deer and pronghorn migration. The sale went through, but the BLM had to withdraw it later on. That’s happened several times since then.

At first the BLM was leasing tens of thousands of acres per parcel, then as more and more people protested, several more parcels have been withdrawn from sale. The BLM is finally beginning to say, “For historical reasons, for wildlife reasons, we’re not going to lease these places.”

Why do you defend this landscape?
My reaction is the same now as the first time I saw the Upper Green—it just holds me in awe. Here, I can actually see what the earth was doing 2 million years ago, and I get a feel for how the human species came upon it and in a very short time changed it immensely. I love to look under the human layer to what the earth was before. The Upper Green puts me in my place. 

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