The Red Desert & The Great Divide Basin

America’s Heritage: The Red Desert
Hidden away in southwestern Wyoming lies one of the most unique and spectacular landscapes in North America—The Red Desert. A wondrous and incredible place: the desert’s stunning rainbow-colored hoo-doos, towering buttes and prehistoric rock art define this rich landscape and provide a truly wild “home on the range” for the largest migratory game herd in the lower 48 states—over 50,000 pronghorn antelope in addition to a rare desert elk herd.

Since the settlement of the West and even long before, this region has played a special role in the lives of Native Americans and early settlers. For thousands of years the Red Desert has been a sacred place of worship for the Shoshone and Ute Tribes. Pioneers, Pony Express riders, Mormon settlers and mountain men also found important landmarks among the desert’s features, guiding them west toward Oregon, Washington, Utah and California.

A Rich High Desert Landscape
The desert offers an unparalleled wilderness experience, with world-class wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities. Seven wilderness study areas (WSAs) including: Buffalo Hump, Sand Dunes, Alkali Draw, South Pinnacles, Honeycomb Buttes, Oregon Buttes and Whitehorse Creek, the largest cluster in Wyoming, lie within the Jack Morrow Hills area of the Red Desert. These WSAs make up the heart of a landscape that includes the largest active sand dune field in North America, ice-cold freshwater ponds, seasonal wetlands, aspen covered buttes, volcanic features and colorful clay hillsides for which the desert is famous.

Throughout the year these landscapes serve as home for thousands of animals and a paradise for humans to retreat from the world into a vast wilderness. In the springtime, thousands of sage grouse gather in the desert as they have done for centuries. In the fall, hunters and wildlife lovers descend on the region to track deer, antelope and elk through sixfoot stands of sage, limber pine and aspen. Rock hounds and paleontologists can find fossilized shark’s teeth, tortoise shells and petrified wood scattered on the ground. Anthropologists can gaze at the sheer southern face of Steamboat Mountain, wander back in time and picture the land when it once was a favorite “Buffalo Jump” hunting area for Native Americans.

Heart of the West’s History
Mountain men exploring the Rockies first set foot in the wild, wide open land of the Red Desert in 1825. During one of the earliest surveying expeditions of the west, in 1871, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, passing through part of the Red Desert, noted the region’s aspen groves and clear flowing springs upon Steamboat Mountain. Except for a few roads and the tragic loss of bison herds roaming the Great Divide Basin, the landscape looks very similar today as it did then.

On the northern edge of the Red Desert lies a historic gold mining area. Here, the old mining towns of South Pass City and Atlantic City remain today. Just south of them lies the Sweetwater River valley that provided an easy route to South Pass and the crossing of the Continental Divide. The pass served as the primary mountain gateway from the east to the west for hundreds of thousands of emigrants. Even today you can still see the imprints that their wagons left behind on their long journey along the Oregon, California and Mormon pioneer trails.

Prior to the arrival of early settlers and explorers, the desert was also home to many cultural and spiritual sites of the Shoshone people. Scattered throughout the landscape are two thousand-year-old rock art sites, and stone circles are said to be significant spiritual sites for the Shoshone people. Tipi rings, outlining ancient campsites of the Shoshone are evident throughout the region. A dramatically scenic black volcanic plug known as the Boar’s Tusk that is strongly associated with the origins of their culture is also in the center of the region.

Losing Touch with the Land: Development Pressure Continues
The Red Desert is the largest unprotected and undeveloped high elevation desert left in the United States. Despite this distinction, the area has long been the focus of multinational oil, gas and mining corporations. According to the Bureau of Land Management, this pressure will continue to grow, with the industry hoping to turn southwestern Wyoming into the major natural gas producing region in the United States by 2015.

Over 90% of southwestern Wyoming’s public land is available for oil and gas leasing and development. Thousands of gas wells sprawl throughout this region, linked together by a growing web of service roads, giant overhead powerlines and pipelines. These gas fields fragment wildlife habitat and disrupt animal behavior and migration. Emissions from generators and compressors degrade air quality, while contamination from spills can pollute surface and groundwater.

The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for developing a management plan for the region. It is within this plan that the future of the rare desert elk and the heart of the Red Desert itself will be decided. Permanently protecting 600,000 acres, out of 15 million acres of public land in southwestern Wyoming would safeguard at least one area of the state’s magnificent wide-open landscape, an area that possesses all the qualities of a National Park.

Safeguarding Our Last Best Places
Citizens in Wyoming and around the country have attempted to permanently protect the Red Desert for over 100 years. Dr. Frank Durham launched the first effort in 1898 to designate the region as a “winter game preserve.” His attempts were followed by Wyoming Governor Leslie Miller’s 1935 campaign to designate the “great Divide Basin National Park.” Despite many decades of support and numerous attempts the Red Desert has yet to be protected— leaving any decision about the future of the region to the BLM’s current planning process.

This article reprinted with permission from Wyoming Outdoor Council. For more information on the Red Desert contact the Wyoming Outdoor Council, 262 Lincoln, Lander, WY 82520.

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