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Badlands, Wild horses, and natural gas wells

Yesterday was the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) Cody Chapter annual spring hike.   This year they decided to go to McCullough Peaks, outside of Cody.  McCullough Peaks is badlands east of Cody.  It’s also a wild horse preserve and parts of it are Wilderness Study area.

McCullough Peaks, named after Pete McCollough who drove cattle to the southfork in 1879 for Judge Carter’s cattle company, is a stark and beautiful landscape.  The earth tones vary from reds to purples to shades of tan.  Numerous and dangerous sinkholes line the broken trails.  Its a land that one might look at and say “Nothin’s here”.  But I’ve hiked it twice now in the last three weeks and I beg to differ.Badlands, McCullough Peaks

My first hike several weeks ago the land was just beginning to green up.  Now’s the time the desert is fertile and blooming, lasting about a month.  You have to time your hike a few days after a snow or rain, otherwise the mud is a murky maze, hard to avoid.  One of the GYC members said this land is part of the Crocodilian age, rich in fossils from the Eocene, 38 to 58 million years ago when seas covered and then receded from the basin.

Hiking close to the herd, W__ and I kept our 50′ distance, but the wild horses decided to check us out more closely.  A mare and her foal came over, sniffed us, and decided we were fine to be on their land.  Its amazing these horses can even survive.  With rainfall only 5 to 8 inches a year, they seem to find food.  The BLM maintains some stock reservoirs that the horses use, as well as the open range cattle.Wild Horses

Wild Horse

The GYC hike was to Peak 6224.  Although it’s only about a mile distance, I found the trek difficult going up and down barren, steep, slippery soil.  From the summit of Peak 6224, you could see the entire basin–Carter Mountain, Heart Mountain, north to Beartooth Plateau and Powell, east to the Pryors and the Big Horns.  The greens of the new grass highlighted the hues of reds and purples, with the snowy peaks as a backdrop.  It was beautiful.  Purples of desert soil

Sinkhole, some are large enough for a man to fall through

View from the peak looking east

GYC chose this hike because on the other side of the road from the hike is where the proposed Natural Gas development is.   At the end of the hike we continued on the road over the hill to view the site.  One well has already been drilled and the toxic waste holding pond is full.  The 6 acre pad is built, but because of low gas prices right now, the well is waiting to be functional.

Open smelly pit with toxic hydrocarbon and chemical waste

This pit is supposed to be protected from birds as well as mammals

Gas pad still not reseeded and recontoured

6 acre pad should have been reseeded and recontoured

Hillary Eisen of the GYC staff explained that this is the first of many proposed wells in the area.  This well was an exploratory drill and they seem to have found enough gas to justify continuing.  She also explained that the 6 acre pad is allowed for the trucks to get in and create the well, but they’re supposed to have re-contoured and seeded the area by now, which they hadn’t.  Also she said that they don’t need to have an open pit for the toxic water waste; that it could just as easily be in a container.  The pit is supposed to be covered so birds can’t get in.  The pit had a real toxic smell.  In addition, there was garbage everywhere when we drove up.  They’re supposed to clean up the mess they leave.

This is the well, capped for now because prices are low.

This is the well, capped for now because prices are low.

This well is on state land.  Several of the others are on BLM land.  The state leases parcels of land with little environmental impact necessary.  They justify their leasing on the basis of the land paying for schools.  The BLM as a federal agency requires input from citizens and reviews.  But, Hillary explained, almost 100% of the time they approve development requests.

Once the wells are drilled and operating (when natural gas prices go back up), either pipelines need to be built or trucks will be going in and out to transport the gas.  Traffic will increase, more holding ponds with more toxic waste will be built, and a large generator for the pumping will be operating 24/7.  The noise from this generator will be constant and deafening.  McCullough Peaks will be a very different place, more on the order of a mini-Jonas field.  The solitude that makes parts of these lands eligible for a Wilderness area will be no longer.Beauty and solitude of McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area

Natural gas may be, as Hilliary explained, our transition fuel to greener technology.  It has a lower greenhouse gas impact than oil does.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t drill in more conscious ways.  This site, with the garbage strewn along the road and the plot, the negligence in restoring the area, the open unnecessary and smelly pits, as well as the types of generators that will be involved with the noise levels in the future–all that is done in the name of low costs.  I would call it pure neglect and unconsciousness.

“Don’t let people push you and say you have to provide energy for the nation.  It is not unreasonable to say there is a point at which we don’t want this to become an oil and gas Appalachia.”–Gov. Dave Freudenthal