Best Wild Places: Exploring the Outlaw Triangle, Day Two

Senior Editor Colin Kearns and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days exploring what’s at stake in the battle for water … Continued

Senior Editor Colin Kearns and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days exploring what’s at stake in the battle for water in the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the consequences of irresponsible drilling for oil and gas in Wyoming’s Little Mountain region. Here’s what they found on day two.

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Dwayne Meadows, of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, glances at a map of the region. That checkerboard pattern? All of those colored blocks indicated leases for energy development.

__Today starts early. The breakfast bell rings at 5:30 a.m. By six, we’re in the in the trucks headed toward Little Mountain to view some wildlife–and we don’t have to wait long. By 6:30, we’ve already seen mule deer, pronghorns, one moose, and a pack of wild horses. The crew from Trout Unlimited wasn’t kidding when they said this area was rich with wildlife. I mean, wild horses.

We take it slow on Little Mountain’s dirt roads. We do this because the land–decorated with wild flowers, bitterbrush, sagebrush, junipers, and aspen trees–deserves to be appreciated. Even the patches of dead junipers, killed long ago by wildfire, are beautiful in their own way–twisted and bare and pale like a league of freak skeletons frozen on the land. We take it slow so as to not disturb the animals, which we can’t seem to travel a quarter-mile without spotting, be it a mule deer doe with her fawns or a pack of antelope or a nest of juvenile hawks. Life thrives here.

Little Mountain is home to trophy herds of elk and muleys and is one of the Intermountain Region’s most iconic escapes for big-game hunting. Add to that populations of sage grouse and ruffed grouse and backcountry creeks with native Colorado cutthroat trout, and you can understand how a sportsman could come here and never want to leave. Unfortunately, places this good can attract the wrong kind of attention. In Little Mountain’s case, that attention has come from the natural gas industry.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is be pragmatic, you know, realistic,” said Steven Brutger, Wyoming Energy Coordinator for TU’s Sportsman’s Conservation Project, of the situation on Little Mountain. “We don’t want the next Jonah Field, nor do we want a national monument. Something in the middle is fine. We’re trying to find a reasonable solution where we isolate the really critical areas, like Trout Creek–spots where it just doesn’t make sense to develop it. Then there are other areas where under very careful stipulations you can have some development. And then there are some other areas where maybe more traditional methods and approaches to development can take place. So we’re trying to work out that blend.”

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We keep driving, occasionally stopping to get out and observe the region from up high. From certain views you can see Little Mountain, the Green River, and the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and you realize how connected these places are–how a threat in one area has the potential to impact and threaten another. What you don’t see are state lines: The land, water, and mountains you see belong to everyone, and now that you’ve seen how special they are you want to do what’s necessary to make sure they stay that way.

We exit the trucks again and walk toward the edge of a high slope that peers into a valley cloaked with aspens. And there, hundreds of yards away, we finally glass a bull elk ambling into an opening. Then we see another and another and another, until a band of seven or more bulls is in sight. Dave Glenn bugles, but the elk do not trust the call and sprint into the trees. It takes us all a minute or so to walk back to the trucks, and just before we climb in someone spots movement straight ahead: it’s the elk. In the time it’s taken us to walk 70 yards, they’ve covered hundreds. I glance up in time to see the last bull disappear over the edge of a downslope.

***

Five-weight in hand, I look down into the valley where Trout Creek winds. I could just get in the truck and drive down to a spot farther downstream, or I could hike down the 600-foot slope that’s thick with brush and soon be casting to native Colorado cutthroats. If only all decisions were this easy.

I’d been looking forward to fishing Trout Creek since the second Brutger told me about it after I arrived. Now that I’m here, I’m so excited that I’m having trouble with my knots. The stream is only a few feet wide. If you want to walk along the other side of the bank, you jump across. The water is shallow and clear, making it hard for the fish to hide. If you don’t see one, you don’t cast. Best of all, the water is ours–at least for today. Because Trout Creek is tough to access and because of its proximity to one of the most famous trout rivers in the country, few anglers know about this spot.

“You saw more people fish the Green in one day yesterday than have ever fished here,” Brutger said.

I walk downstream and eventually run into Brett Prettyman who is casting a small black streamer to a fish holding in a riffle. The fish won’t strike, so Prettyman lets me have a shot. I make a sloppy-but-good-enough cast, and the trout rose and took my foam beetle on the first drift.

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At some point I get separated from the others, and for awhile it feels like I have the place all to myself. I cast to every trout I see and eventually get the hang of landing the fly in such narrow water. And after I switch to a small yellow hopper–a fly that’s been sitting in my box since I tied it back in college, probably ten years ago–the strikes become almost automatic.

This is one of those days of fishing where everything–the setting, the water, the fish, and the fishing–is right, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a day of fishing more in my life. So hours later, when I meet up with another angler in our downstream, I’m fine with breaking down my rod and walking to the trucks–even if I am skipping over fish that I haven’t cast to yet. Trout Creek has been good enough to me already.

***

That evening we hop aboard two pontoon boats and cruise Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Jerry Taylor, owner of Lucerne Valley Marina, is behind the wheel on our boat. As he steers, he talks about the lake’s history, its fishing, and the likely consequences of the pipeline. Taylor has a vivid way of painting a picture: We motor just a short ways from the dock and after we cross an imaginary line on the water, Taylor informs us that this would be a very different boat ride if the pipeline was in place, sucking 80 billion gallons of water from the reservoir annually.

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“This would be gone,” he said. “There would be no water. The only ramp that would be in the water at that boat level would be Lucerne. All of the others around the lake would be high and dry and would have to be built down in order to get them to float.” Taylor added that the Forest Service would be required by legislation to provide access by rebuilding the ramps, but that would cost tens of millions.

Dave Glenn, who is listening to Taylor’s grim forecast with the rest of us, chimes in: “Over 40 years, the reservoir would drop from 40,000 acres to 15,000 acres. The water temperature would go up, and all of the fish here–the lake trout, browns, rainbows, bass, kokanee–all of those fish are going to get hammered and consolidated. This is a world-class fishery! And the flow down below where we fished yesterday would drop, and the fish would be toast.”

About the only optimistic notes uttered tonight came after dinner. We’d docked the boats and joined many others from the region–guides, marina workers, business owners, mayors–for a barbecue. Rest assured these citizens are prepared to fight the pipeline. They’re organized, they’re passionate, and they understand the facts. They know they have to fight as one, as Wyoming and Utah. It was inspiring to see a community come together like this to protect a place they love. I left the reservoir with real hope that they’ll win the fight.

***

Back at the ranch, the air is brisk, the stars bright. Now and then, you might hear coyotes yip in the distance. It’s a bit early to turn in for the night, so most of us head to the kitchen patio. There’s a big table where we all gather. Bruce Smithhammer and Kevin Emery arrive with a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of Scotch to share. We grab cups and ice from the kitchen and enjoy a couple of nightcaps. We go around the table telling stories and cracking jokes. We laugh and curse and make fun of one another. We have maybe just one more drink–a small one, though, and then that’s it. Really. None of this has anything to do with catching trout, but somehow today’s fishing–the most enjoyable of my life–just got better. –Colin Kearns

Click here to see more photos from day two of our expedition to the Outlaw Triangle.