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  • Jack Smith

The Desert Is A Lot Like Beer

The desert is a lot like beer, it’s an acquired taste.” That’s what a friend of mine told me some years ago. I think he may have been onto something. However, these northern cold desert areas of Wyoming are neither a smooth lager nor an easy-drinking American pilsner. Rather, I seem to be continually thinking of a bitter pale ale as I sit on the cracked gray clay sipping warm water from my water bottle. It is a hot day in early June and I am in the middle of the Honeycombs wildlands in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. Although I am only 20 miles from the city of Worland, I feel I could be a thousand miles or a hundred and fifty years away from any western population center.

The Honeycombs are probably one of the most endangered wildlands in the nation. I won’t try to kid myself or anyone else, there is little chance their wilderness characteristics will survive in today’s motorized, fossil-fuel-hungry world. Industry officials, politicians, and government managers are all lined up to sound the Honeycombs’ death knell. In that respect, I guess my trips to the Honeycombs

could be viewed as those of mourning; excursions similar to visiting that mysterious, little-understood uncle you never really took time to know but who is now at death’s door. You are not sure what to ask in the short amount of time he has remaining. You only know there will soon be so much hidden knowledge lost forever, knowledge he would have readily gifted you, if only you had taken the time to slow down, sit, and listen.

The Honeycombs have been an area of mystery since man first ventured into their maze of mudstone badlands and gullies thousands of years ago. These rugged badlands have long represented the last vestiges of a vanishing Wyoming basin wildness. Fifty million years ago the first ancestral horse roamed the lands later to become the Honeycombs. To the wonderment of Native Americans and excitement of early paleontologists, the eroding mudstones and siltstones of these badlands yielded numerous vertebrate fossils representing the “Dawn of Mammals” on earth. In the last few hundred years the horse would return to the Honeycombs. A locally infamous wild stallion, “Bill Bailey,” once ruled these badlands until he was ultimately tamed in 1908. That taming, described in a Worland newspaper, reportedly “required six grain-fed saddle horses, all fresh and fleet-footed to capture him, and he led them a merry chase for about 80 miles during the day he was pursued.” Toward evening the wild stallion became wearied and was overtaken, roped, and ultimately broken. Bill Bailey would never return home.

In 1906, a stock inspector reported to the local newspaper of “the ravages of wolves” hiding out in the Honeycombs. These rugged badlands were the final refuge of that top predator as they were being systematically eliminated from the Big Horn Basin. Predator bounty records suggest wolves were ultimately extirpated from the Honeycombs in the early 1920s.

Of the eleven western states with significant federal acreage managed by the BLM, Wyoming alone has zero acres of BLM wilderness.

Even in the face of these subtractions, when today’s badlands explorer looks up at a bright blue sky, smells the fragrance of sagebrush, feels the dry wind as it flows around hoodoos and over barren clay slopes, and intently listens for the unmistakable buzz of a rattlesnake hiding somewhere in the sagebrush, he or she quickly realizes there still remains a pulsing, wild heart in the Honeycombs.

In the late 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began a wilderness suitability review of public lands in Wyoming in accordance with Title VI, Section 603 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA).

In 1991 the BLM submitted their wilderness quality lands evaluation and recommendations to Congress. The agency’s evaluation included a 21,000-acre Honeycombs Wilderness Study Area (WSA). In the three decades since those recommendations, Congress has failed to address the wilderness evaluations for BLM wildlands in Wyoming, including the Honeycombs. Of the eleven western states with significant federal acreage managed by the BLM, Wyoming alone has zero acres of BLM wilderness. Wyoming’s 18 million acres of BLM-managed federal lands also include zero acres of National Monuments, zero acres of National Conservation Areas, and zero miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Does this mean Wyoming’s public lands do not have the spectacular badlands, rugged canyons, wild mountain ranges, scenic waterways, critical wildlife habitat, unique plant communities, or lonesome desert areas currently recognized in other western states? Far from it! Wyoming’s BLM-managed lands include some of the most scenic and wild landscapes in the entire West.

What exactly has been the focus in Wyoming over the past several decades while these wildlands have awaited congressional action? BLM quarterly mineral lease auction reports show that in the 23-year period of 1998 through 2020, a total of 14.8 million acres of federal oil and gas properties have been leased in Wyoming. At the present time there are approximately 9 million acres of federal oil and gas estate under lease. In the meantime, Wyoming’s total BLM WSA acreage has sat quietly at 577,504 acres.

If all Wyoming’s BLM WSA acreage were added to the National Wilderness Preservation System, those lands would comprise...less than 1% of the state’s total area.

If all Wyoming’s BLM WSA acreage were added to the National Wilderness Preservation System, those lands would comprise a very small 3.3% of the state’s BLM-managed lands and less than 1% of the state’s total area. Even the most-

ardent fossil fuel proponent must see a serious multiple use imbalance here.

Early this morning I drove east from Worland and turned south onto the Blue Bank Road. Flanking the eastern boundary of the Honeycombs WSA, this road easily transported me to a spot overlooking the dissected badland headwaters of Big Cottonwood Creek. I pulled off the dirt road to begin this, my fifth or sixth, excursion into the Honeycombs. My daypack was light on gear, but hefty on water. Even though the usually dry Big Cottonwood Creek was flowing slightly as I drove past, its waters are far too silty and saline for human consumption. Packing drinking water into the backcountry is the only reliable and practical way for modern man to survive in this cold desert environment.

My route first involved dropping off the rim and wandering through a group of hoodoos before I reached the greasewood and sagebrush-covered valley bottom. Early spring wildflowers such as desert parsley, bitterroot, locoweed, penstemon,

goldenweed, and paintbrush dotted the areas where the thin soil had not washed away. Several hours later, after crossing a number of barren clay ridges and dry ephemeral channels, I found a smooth clay outwash area in the middle of the badlands that would make an acceptable rest spot.

I dropped my pack, sat on the hot ground, and numbly gazed at the intensely eroded surroundings. The Honeycombs are certainly an area of extremes. Temperatures here can vary from 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to minus 50 degrees in the winter. Although precipitation bounces around its typical 8 inches per year, drainages normally dust-dry for years at a time can become boiling walls of runoff soup following an intense summer cloudburst. These single events will carry sagebrush corpses, pronghorn antelope bones, and tons of fine sediment down to the Big Horn River. These dramatic precipitation events also create new hoodoos, destroy old hoodoos, and bring ancient mammalian fossils to the light of day.

After the sweat has evaporated from my back and brow, I dig into my pack and extracted one of the water bottles I have been carrying. Drinking a half-liter, I close up my daypack, grab my camera, and head off to explore more of the gullies, gulches, and badland ridges surrounding me.

The primary color in the Honeycombs badlands is gray. Upon closer examination the shades of gray range from dirty-cream to deep charcoal. Interspersed are strata with hues of red, orange, tan, brown, and black. The harder, rust-colored sandstone caprock that crowns the hoodoos or has rolled into the gully bottoms is covered with red, orange, and green lichens.

Drainages are flanked with conifer-green greasewood and blue-gray sagebrush shrubs. Areas with some soil development have spring-green needle-and-thread grass and dense patches of still-dormant blue grama turf patently awaiting summer thundershowers and an optimistic late season green-up. This mosaic of land and color is typically set beneath a brilliant blue sky harboring bright white

cumulus clouds and a piercing sun.

My afternoon of travels has shown me both the subtle and dramatic aspects of the badlands’ geology. Rolling sagebrush knolls give way to steep, barren mudstone ridges with deep erosional gullies and pseudo-karst sinkholes. Hoodoos in various stages of development and destruction rim the gulches. Intent observation of the barren clay slopes has rewarded me with the discovery of vertebrate fossils and cultural artifacts, both federally-protected accessions to the Honeycombs’ heritage.

Although the resident wildlife of the Honeycombs has remained hidden during the heat of the afternoon, I see signs of their passing. Pronghorn antelope and mule deer tracks of “who knows how long ago,” are found imprinted deep into the now-dry clay. Jackrabbit and cottontail rabbit pellets and the occasional coyote track tell of the ongoing chapter in that predator/prey story. Last winter’s pellets of the greater sage grouse are seen among the sagebrush plants. Redtail hawks ride the thermals above the badlands and numerous songbirds of the sagebrush steppe flit away as I walk past.

Although the Honeycombs’ wildlife can be hidden from casual view on a warm spring day, the area does support important wildlife resources. Portions of the Honeycombs wildlands are delineated crucial big game range, all of the wildlands are occupied sage grouse habitat, and portions of the wildlands are primary sage grouse core habitat. In addition, the Honeycombs provide important nesting habitat for a number of raptor species and the homes for numerous small mammals adapted to an arid environment.

The Honeycombs are truly a wilderness with a small “w.” And this wilderness encompasses much more than the 21,000-acre WSA the BLM originally

identified in their early evaluation. Subsequent BLM assessments in 2011 of “Lands with

Wilderness Characteristics” identified four areas contiguous to the WSA which encompassed an additional 38,700 acres. The WSA, contiguous Lands with Wilderness Characteristics, and a handful of State of Wyoming inholdings result in a

Honeycombs wildland unit of over 62,500 acres. This is a sizeable chunk of possible northern cold desert badlands and basin wilderness. Wyoming conservationists have long recognized this expanded wildland unit and developed a Citizens’

Honeycombs Wilderness Alternative of 52,764 acres. There are not very many other BLM areas in Wyoming with this potential for large wilderness.

What did the BLM say about these wildlands in their wilderness evaluation? The agency reported the Honeycombs possess “outstanding opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation.” They also stated the “overall impact of intrusions on the naturalness of the WSA is slight” with “surface disturbance by humans substantially unnoticeable.” Additionally, the BLM evaluation stated the Honeycombs WSA “contains outstanding opportunities for solitude.” The agency continued and reported the Honeycombs WSA has “excellent opportunities to study scenic erosional patterns” and possesses “the potential for deposits of large mammalian fossils from the Tertiary Period.” How about the contiguous Lands with Wilderness

Characteristics? Not only did the BLM report these lands met all the suitability requirements spelled out in the 1964 Wilderness Act, the agency also stated all four additions possessed supplemental values of significant paleontological and cultural resources.

A 2010 research project by Duke University investigator Brian Tarpinian provided insight into the value of the Honeycombs from an ecosystem perspective. In his nationwide assessment, Tarpinian prioritized proposed federal wilderness

areas based on the amount of currently-protected lands (federal, state, local, and non-governmental) existing within each wildland’s respective ecoregion. Wilderness Study Areas and other agency proposed wilderness in underrepresented ecoregions received the highest priority. Tarpinian’s research found that of all the nation’s BLM WSAs, those within the Bighorn Basin Ecoregion, including the Honeycombs, had the second highest priority for possible wilderness designation. This conclusion was based on Tarpinian’s determination that only 0.17% of the Bighorn Basin Ecoregion was currently managed under some type of complete ecosystem protection.

All these factors would lead one to believe the Honeycombs would make a significant and welcome addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The area is relatively large and intact, offers outstanding opportunities for primitive recreation and solitude, has significant geological and paleontological resources, is erosionally sensitive, possesses critical wildlife habitat, and would offer landscape protection to an ecoregion with an extremely low level of ecosystem protection. In fact, the BLM’s own 1991 environmental impact statement reported: “the All Wilderness Alternative is considered to be the environmentally preferable alternative as it would result in the least change to the natural environment over the long term.” But instead, the BLM recommended none of the Honeycombs be designated as wilderness and these unique and fragile lands be released to uses other than wilderness. In addition, the BLM recommended the contiguous Lands with Wilderness Characteristics not be managed for naturalness, outstanding opportunities for solitude, or outstanding opportunities for primitive and unconfined

recreation. What exactly was the agency’s rational for these decisions?

The BLM justified its recommended release of the WSA wilderness-quality lands by stating the wilderness values identified “are not present to the degree deemed necessary for wilderness designation.” In addition, the agency reported “the WSA does not contain a single feature or combination of features significant enough to

warrant wilderness designation.” Even though the wilderness values specifically spelled out in the Wilderness Act are present in the Honeycombs, a qualitative assessment by someone within the BLM determined those values somehow just weren’t good enough.

What did the BLM have in mind for wilderness qualities and features that warrant wilderness designation? Maybe the BLM saw “good wilderness” as needing dramatic slickrock canyons, snowy mountain peaks, dense pine forests, or trout- filled streams and alpine lakes. Whatever the missing feature, someone obviously never acquired

a taste for the northern cold desert. However, there may be other telling answers.

The BLM’s environmental impact statement cites a United States Geological Survey mineral assessment concluding the Honeycombs WSA had “no identified mineral or energy resources,” however, there was “moderate resource potential for undiscovered oil and gas, for undiscovered subsurface coal in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the study area, and for the industrial commodities sand and gravel, mudstone, and sandstone along the western and northern edges of the study area.”

The BLM’s justification for not managing the contiguous Lands with Wilderness Characteristics for their current untrammeled values is a bit more straightforward. The BLM reported large portions of each of the four units were “identified as containing Coal, with very low potential for development; the area could have potential for exploration of coal bed methane. It is not recommended to manage for wilderness characteristics within the areas due to the potential for resource development.”

Do the Honeycombs WSA and contiguous wilderness quality lands really have sufficient mineral potential for viable resource development? The BLM reported there were 3 historic oil wells drilled within the boundaries of the Honeycombs

WSA and over 100 wells drilled within 3 miles of the WSA. The agency further stated all the wells inside and all but 2 of the wells outside the WSA were dry. Geological surveys indicate the coal seams under the Honeycombs are sporadic and

typically range from 3 to 5 feet in maximum thickness. Never mind that coal mines in Wyoming’s eastern Powder River Basin with 60- foot-thick coal seams have gone bankrupt. And let’s not forget the recent coal bed methane boom in Wyoming. Extracting gas from much thicker coal seam aquifers has gone big time bust, leaving numerous environmental problems and reclamation costs passed onto the taxpayer. Finally, are sand, gravel, and mudstone such rare commodities that those in the Honeycombs must be placed in reserve? Clearly, the wilderness values held by the Honeycombs far exceed any hopeful, and historically-unsupported claim there is money to be made in extracting the badlands’ minerals.

It is getting late and the sun is dropping toward the horizon. I adjust my pack and begin the trip back to civilization. Earlier in the day I drove past portions of the Cottonwood Creek oil field on my way to these wildlands. I think of all the bladed roads, well pads, storage tanks, and pump jacks spread across that development. Will this sensitive cold desert badlands environment be sacrificed in the search for more oil and gas? Will this be the Honeycombs’ ultimate destiny? Even if no economic reserves are found, the footprint and newly-gained access from those exploration efforts will forever change this landscape.

But what if public input overwhelming backed the Citizens’ Wilderness Proposal for Wyoming BLM wildlands? What if, in the give and take of negotiation, the Honeycombs WSA was not sacrificed in hopes of cementing the inclusion of

better-known Wyoming WSAs like Adobe Town, Ferris Mountains, or the Sand Dunes? Isn’t there room in this great state to preserve all those BLM wildlands as wilderness? I take a deep breath with hopeful answers to those questions floating through my head.

On this trip I have once again uncovered a few more of the secrets held by this threatened wildland. But there is still so much more needing to be passed on to me and other adventurers. The wild heart of these badlands does not need to be silenced. All I ask is you take a sip and savor the Honeycombs as the unique, cold desert wilderness it has always been. Then, take another sip. This desert is, after all, an acquired taste.


Find out more about our BLM work by contacting our BLM Wildlands Organizer, Lauren Marsh:

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