Public lands are the defining feature of the American West. They set the region apart ecologically and politically—they are, in many ways, what make the American West the American West.
In June of 2016 I arrived in the town of Pinedale, Wyoming for a summer of listening. I set out to try and understand what it’s like to live, work, and get along in a rural, resource-dependent county that is 80% public lands.
In this site you’re invited to explore a curated collection of snapshots—photographs, quotes, videos and audio clips—of my encounters and conversations in Sublette County. I hope that as you navigate the content, you’ll find some insight into the many ways people relate to and value where they live.
In Pushed Off the River, Sold Down the River, author Samuel Western writes, “I realized Wyoming is searching for its soul… Wyoming wants—desperately, almost secretly—an inner identity not defined or controlled by outside terms.” In Wyoming, I learned that the soul American West could be found, not in sweeping generalizations or catchy headlines, but in nuanced listening.
Sublette County is home to the oldest Cattle Drive in the country. This video of The Green River Drift introduces a documentary about the families who move their cattle the 58 miles from the valley to the mountains—and back again—every year.
Audio clip --- Making home on the range. A rancher and storyteller’s connection to the Sublette County sagebrush:
Audio clip --- A sheepherder talks about her guard dogs, sheep, and bears and wolves:
On Air, Water and Snow
Between 2008 and 2011 the concentration of wintertime ozone in the Upper Green River Basin was so high that it exceeded federal limits. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded by designating the region as a “non attainment zone” under the Clean Air Act.
Ozone is produced when nitrogen and volatile organic compounds interact in sunlight. Levels of wintertime ozone are influenced by topography, pollution and snow.
Audio clip --- A researcher, Taylor Ganz, heads into the backcountry to study snowmelt and the pollution it carries:
Audio clip --- Feeling at home in the mountains in the snow requires making sure everyone is warm, comfortable and well fed. For that, there's a snow kitchen:
Video Clip: Pine ‘Crick’ at full flow. The creek travels from Fremont Lake at the foot of the Wind River Mountains through the town of Pinedale. Before the mountain men came the landscape was a wetland managed by beavers. Now the beavers are gone and people dig ditches to direct the water flow.
On Energy: Boom and Bust
Just south of Pinedale are two of the most productive natural gas fields in the country, the Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline—often referred to as “the Mesa”.
Though natural gas was discovered in the Jonah Field in the 1930’s it took years before the industry developed the technology to extract it. Fracturing, or “fracking”, coupled with the leasing of 7000 drilling wells on the Pinedale Anticline by the Bureau of Land Management ushered in a natural gas boom in 2000, followed by a bust.
Banner photo: Aerial view of the oil fields.
Audio clip --- Local historian and bed and breakfast owner, Ann Chambers Noble, reflects on the impact of the boom and bust:
On History and Culture
Sublette County was named after the mountain man, fur trader and trapper, William Sublette. Each year tourists and locals gather for a long weekend at the Green River Rendezvous to reenact the pastimes of the fur trading and frontier life.
This man traveled all the way to Wyoming from Bavaria, Germany for the Rendezvous Days. Believe it or not, he didn’t buy his get-up at this trading post—he got it custom made by a Old West outfit specialist back in Germany.
Banner photo: Folks dig into the BBQ outside the old Daniel Schoolhouse at the annual Daniel Oldtimers’ Community Picnic.
Audio clip --- A reflection on the critical role that Sublette County geography played in the settlement of the West.
Left: The legacy of old homesteads in the region dates back to the late 1800’s. Here’s a sketch of the old stove at the Sommers Ranch Homestead, a living history museum that’s open in the summer. Visitors are invited to churn butter, collect eggs, and learn a bit about what life would have been like.
Video clip: A glimpse of the Ranch Rodeo at the Pinedale Rodeo grounds. At ranch rodeos, teams of cowboys and/or cowgirls from different ranches compete in events that are based on the work they do every day on the ranch. My favorite event was the trailer loading.
There are upwards of 715,000 acres of ‘capitol-W’ designated Wilderness in Sublette County, both of which belong to the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The largest area, the Bridger Wilderness, encompasses the west slope of the Wind River Mountains and 150 miles of the Continental Divide Trail.
In February of 2016, Pinedale applied to become Wyoming’s first Continental Divide Trail Gateway Community, which marks the town as welcoming to through-hikers of the trek. To celebrate, the Pinedale hosted the first annual Wind River Mountain Festival in the summer of 2016.
Audio clip --- Duke Edwards, the pastor of Wilderness Church, and his 13-year-old son (one of the top long-distance shooters in the world) run a dunk tank fundraiser at the first annual Wind River Mountain Festival.
Audio clip --- Conor Raney, who just circumnavigated the Sublette County line by foot, speaks in awe of the open space he grew up with:
An estimated 4 million tourists per year visit Wyoming to recreate, and approximately 100,000 of those travel into the Wind River Mountains. Outdoor enthusiasts come to Sublette County to hike, backpack, fish, ski, ride horses, and jump into ice-cold lakes.
Local business owners say some of the same people return year after year, but over time, they’ve seen more young families and women, traveling in groups or by themselves, come through. Tourism and recreation contribute 1.9 billion and 4.5 billion, respectively, to the Wyoming economy.*
On Sunday, July 17th, 2016, lightning sparked a wildfire in the Bridger Teton National Forest five miles above the town of Bondurant. The fire grew quickly. Firefighter crews traveled from across the region to set up camps in open fields and get to work. As smoke and haze filled the valley, many residents were asked to evacuate their homes. Others sat on their front porch and watched trees blaze down in the distance.
The road to Jackson was closed to through traffic for days. Tourists, workers, locals and even the truck carrying the local newspaper were forced to reroute or go around the Wyoming Range, adding an extra five hours of driving to their travel. Once the residential areas were protected, the fire was left to consume the wilderness. In total, 34,313 acres burned. After nearly two months of smoldering, a September rain finally put the Cliff Creek Fire to rest.
Above: Firefighters and locals peer over maps of the Cliff Creek Fire at a community meeting hosted by the Forest Service in Bondurant, Wyoming.
Audio clip --- A bed and breakfast owner explains the effect of the Cliff Creek Fire’s road closure to Jackson on her business.
The area of the Upper Green River Basin—between the Wyoming and Wind River Ranges—is part of one of the longest big game migration routes in the United States. The mule deer herds migrate 150 miles from the Red Desert to Hoback, crossing fence lines, roads and oil fields.
Curious about the debates surrounding the de-listing of the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly? Check out this three part series on Home of the Brave by Scott Carrier.
I believe that public lands illuminate the best and worst of America. They are a microcosm of the US, a proxy for understanding our history, values, prospects, and struggles. At their core, conflicts over public lands shed light on the function of society.
Here is a brief case study of that tension, and an attempt by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association to create more public participation in how public lands—specifically Wilderness Study Areas (WSA’s)—are used and managed:
First, some background: WSA’s were set aside by the Wilderness Act in 1964—not as “big W” wilderness, but as areas with wilderness-like qualities (i.e. no roads, “primitive” natures and plenty of solitude) to be considered for official designation by federal agencies somewhere down the line.
Fifty years later the status of these pockets of public lands is still nebulous. So the Wyoming County Commissioners Association decided to kick-start their own way to determine permitted activities. It’s called the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative or the WPLI, and it’s a county-by-county, WSA-by-WSA attempt to introduce a chunk of legislation. (Note: Despite the nearly identical acronym, the WPLI is mostly distinct from Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative in Utah—even if both are part of a broader movement to bring the states more say over public lands.)
Each county that opts in to the process handpicks a group of stakeholders—representing the ag, sportsman, energy, conservation and recreation communities, respectively—who are tasked with determining the fate of each WSA in each county. That means they have to come to consensus about whether the parcels should indeed become Wilderness, or whether certain acreage can be open to mountain bikes, ATV’s, cattle, hikers, drilled for oil and gas, or none of the above.
Sublette County’s WPLI process began only after I left for the summer, but I was lucky to shadow a site visit of one of Fremont County’s WSA’s, Copper Mountain. See photo gallery below:
Conclusion: On Common Ground
While disagreements about how to use and manage public lands abound, I think it’s time to dispel the assumption that there is no common ground in Western conflicts—for the land is both what people fight over and what grounds them. It is people’s sense of place that is the heartbeat of the American West. When folks stand together on that shared ground there is still hope for mutual understanding, for seeing eye to eye.
As the American West enters the anthropocene, we must re-write our destiny from one of conquest to one of confluence, collaboration, and connectedness. To do this we need new narratives and compelling stories that stir our hearts and minds.
When we truly hear people we awaken our humanity. To listen to what it is like to live with public lands is to begin to understand the challenges that face Western states like Wyoming. If my time in Wyoming has taught me anything, it has taught me that only when we start from a place of listening and empathy can we learn to live together.
My heartfelt thanks to the people of Pinedale, Sublette County and Wyoming for opening their hearts and homes to me. I learned so much from you all, and will be forever grateful. This whole experience would not have been possible without the generous support of the Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative. Thank you for believing in the power of the story, and for funding one of the best summers of my life.