Best Wild Places: White River Drainage, Colorado

Rio Blanco County in northwestern Colorado is just far enough removed from the Interstate highways, the ski resorts, the National Parks, that there's still a palpable "Old West" authenticity here. There are few majestic granite peaks to lure tourists; the landscape is a more rolling, meandering array of sage, pine and aspen covered benches and bluffs. Nonetheless, beautiful for its lack of billboards, strip malls and hillside condos.

This region around the town of Meeker is deeply rooted in ranching, hunting and fishing. Each year the area records 64,000 hunter days; 75 percent of them focused on big game hunting (the largest elk herd in North America is in this region).

As for fishing, the White River runs unencumbered from headwaters in the high alpine Flattops Wilderness into a brushy coulee zone, and it's filled with wild trout throughout this stretch (It eventually turns warmer and muddy, and flows into the Green River in Utah). The White may indeed be the most underrated fishery in Colorado. Together, hunting and fishing add $30 million in annual revenue and more than 300 jobs to the region.

But that merely scratches the surface (literally) compared to the real economic boom that's happening here. There's been a three-fold increase in oil and gas drilling in the White River drainage since 1997. And given America's appetite for domestic energy, that promises to grow even more. For example, between 550 and 2,500 well pads might be developed within the next 15 to 20 years within the Bureau of Land Management's White River Field Office area alone.

With the increased drilling activity also comes increased trucking and heavy-equipment operations-- pipelines that intersect big-game migration corridors, as well as erosion and other threats to habitat for native trout.

The White River Valley is also seeing more real estate development, as working ranches are sold to investors and developers, some of whom are making riverfront trophy homes that destroy riparian habitat. Public access to fishing is therefore a prominent concern (As it is on any trout river in Colorado, where stream-access laws allow landowners to fence off their sections of the river to the public).

I recently spent a few days exploring the many facets of the White River drainage with Chris Herrman and Aaron Kindle, of Trout Unlimited. Together, we saw firsthand the raw, sheer natural beauty that earns this region a ranking as one of America's Best Wild Places. But we also saw the evolving environmental and commercial issues that could pose a threat to the fishing and hunting heritage of the region. And we spoke with a number of outfitters, elected officials, and average hunters and anglers who are wrestling with ways to balance economic opportunity and protect the natural resources and outdoor culture that depends on them.