Oil Sacrifice Zone for Many is Home to Some

Utah's Desolation Canyon

Utah’s Desolation Canyon

New Orleans       Born in Laramie and raised in and around the West as a boy, it’s still a place of my heart and a taproot to my life, so I try to keep up as I travel along my winding roads and partly I do that by reading the High Country News.  Flipping through an issue on the future of the West, I stumbled on an essay entitled “Sacrifice Zone” by Sarah Gilman.  The pictures with the piece were beguilingly beautiful of Utah’s Desolation Canyon and then there was one of a fella standing in front of his store with a sign saying, “Honk!  If You (heart) Drilling.”  The store was in Vernal, Utah, and that took me back to the beginning of the piece to read in detail whether an area I knew well was now a “sacrifice zone.”

The article was scary stuff.  Gilman was looking at a deal that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance had made with the Bill Barrett Corporation to drill hundreds of gas wells outside of Desolation Canyon. She reports that rather than Barrett drilling 240 wells they had proposed and had a legal right to operate, they were willing to only drill a half-dozen so that the whole project could go forward.  She quoted the SUWA lawyer as saying “once oil and gas is in an area, it’s the dominant use.  It’s already a sacrifice zone.”   As an organizer and often times a negotiator, professionally I understood their position and argument completely, but personally I was offended.

In my memory, Vernal, Utah, home of the Dinosaur National Monument, is next door to Rangeley, Colorado on the western slope of the Rockies, less than 20 miles from the Utah border and 50 or so miles away, it was the nearest big town to the Chevron oil camp where we lived for five years, where my brother was born, and where we returned annually for weeks or months every year until I was in high school.   This is stark, arid country.  It’s an acquired taste, but one I cherish deeply.   I’ve passed through there whenever I had an excuse.  Once in the late 1970s with a car I’d bought from a friend on the West Coast, I had stayed at an oil workers boarding house and happened upon a Rangely City Council meeting where they were plotting the prospects of growth to 20,000 people on an oil shale boom that never developed.  Another time I drove my family through on an excuse that it was on the way between dinosaurs and Denver.

It’s all part of the same oil field or sacrifice zone, but how has it come to all of this now?  I checked a Colorado promotional site to see if my affection for the area was just nostalgia or warranted.  They described a drive through the area as the…

“…byway dips between the steep walls of a scrub-brush valley. Follow the route through this gorge-studded area, and at times you’ll find yourself in the depths of a wide valley and at others, traversing along the tops of the canyons. Just south of Rangely, Canyon Pintado will present itself.  For more than 11,000 years, people have called Canyon Pintado home. The Fremont Indians were long-time residents. Through petroglyphs and pictographs, the Fremont people created numerous images of their world. No one has been able to positively identify the significance of the paintings, but educated conjectures revolve around religious and everyday themes. There are 18 information panels spread out over 12 sites within the canyon that serve to help visitors understand the artwork they see. Kokopelli, the hunched flute player, is a commonly seen figure throughout Fremont rock art and reappears along Canyon Pintado’s walls.  Because of its oil derricks bobbing up and down like drinking birds, the town of Rangely is something of an anomaly for visitors to Colorado. For a look at the inner-workings of these tireless workhorses of an oil field, there is an informational kiosk and demonstrative derrick on display along the byway. This oil-rich area is arid, with warm sun shining most of the year….Before one of the United States’ largest oil fields was discovered here, Rangely was a Ute trading post and, later, ranchers’ territory.

A lot of the oil drilling is in Jensen, Utah on the other, western side of Vernal about equidistant from Rangely on the eastern side of that town, but when it comes to oil and gas extraction the distance is more a matter of degree than difference.   Areas of the world, the USA, the West, and places like the junction of Utah and Colorado where Vernal and Rangely find themselves twin towns sitting on prehistoric and primordial histories dating back millions of years are just places most people will never go or care about.  These are not the classic riparian scenes in postcards in front of snowcapped mountains.  This is not the west of the imagination but the west of reality.

Gilman quotes Herm Hoops, a Jensen resident, saying “If you want a sacrifice zone, move it to Boulder.  Let’s have big money fight big money and see who comes out the winner.”  I second his emotion.

A hydraulic fracturing oil rig stands in Garfield County, Colorado.  PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A hydraulic fracturing oil rig stands in Garfield County, Colorado.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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In keeping with our theme of pro-labor union songs, please enjoy  WGA Strike Dancing 2 – The Sequel (Union Maid) to Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” The update is written by Paul Glickman and Seth Kurland and sung by Joe Hill. 

 

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