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1Frame4Nature | Dave Showalter

Dan Smitherman leads Sara and Lee Pace on a ride above Noble Basin in the Upper Hoback region. The backdrop is the Wyoming Rangewith and the now-protected Upper Hoback watershed. Bridger-Teton National Forest near Bondurant, WY.
Dan Smitherman leads Sara and Lee Pace on a ride above Noble Basin in the Upper Hoback region. The backdrop is the Wyoming Rangewith and the now-protected Upper Hoback watershed. Bridger-Teton National Forest near Bondurant, WY.

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A pair of mule deer bucks in their summer velvet antlers catch the first morning light. The longest known mule deer migration travels between the Red Desert and Upper Hoback - up to 150 miles one way. Upper Hoback River Basin, Wyoming.
A pair of mule deer bucks in their summer velvet antlers catch the first morning light. The longest known mule deer migration travels between the Red Desert and Upper Hoback – up to 150 miles one way. Upper Hoback River Basin, Wyoming.

iLCP Fellow Dave Showalter’s 1Frame4Nature: Standing Up For The Upper Hoback

In the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) just west of Bondurant, Wyoming at the base of the Wyoming Range sits a mountain basin with beaver ponds and creeks, mixed sagebrush and aspen, and conifer forest rimming the edges. It’s a wildlife superhighway; a stronghold for moose; summer range for calving and fawning elk, deer and pronghorn; home to all of the toothy predators of Greater Yellowstone – grizzly and black bears, gray wolves, mountain lions. Called the Upper Hoback, for the headwaters of the Snake River tributary, Noble Basin is a montane stronghold for mule deer that migrate up to 150 miles from the Red Desert to spend fawning season in the Upper Hoback, only the Upper Hoback.

The Upper Hoback was almost lost when it was leased to become an industrial scale natural gas field in 2006.

From Lookout Peak, 10344’ in the Wyoming Range, storm clouds over the Wind River Range catch warm sunset light. I visited on foot and by air to make images of this remarkable place in Wyoming's namesake mountain range. From here, you would be able to see, hear, and smell Noble Basin if the plan to drill had gone forward.The area is part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and home to a wide range of wildlife, including wintering elk and mule deer. Numerous Conservation groups, including Trust For Public land, Wyoming Outdoor Council , The Wilderness Society, and Greater Yellowstone Coalition came together in a grassroots effort to protect the Upper Hoback Region. Trust For public Land purchased the gas leases and retired them in perpetuity - the Upper Hoback region is protected forever! Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
From Lookout Peak, 10344’ in the Wyoming Range, storm clouds over the Wind River Range catch warm sunset light. I visited on foot and by air to make images of this remarkable place in Wyoming’s namesake mountain range. From here, you would be able to see, hear, and smell Noble Basin if the plan to drill had gone forward.The area is part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and home to a wide range of wildlife, including wintering elk and mule deer. Numerous Conservation groups, including Trust For Public land, Wyoming Outdoor Council , The Wilderness Society, and Greater Yellowstone Coalition came together in a grassroots effort to protect the Upper Hoback Region. Trust For public Land purchased the gas leases and retired them in perpetuity – the Upper Hoback region is protected forever! Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

The plan was to drill 136 natural gas wells, with a network of to roads to be traveled thousands of times by heavy trucks in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. If it could happen here, in the GYE, it could happen anywhere on our public lands.

While working on a multi-year conservation project in the sagebrush ecosystem that would lead to my book Sage Spirit, The American West At A Crossroads, I learned of the Upper Hoback. LightHawk, a volunteer pilot conservation group flew me over the landscape and one single image made a visual connection of nearly roadless lands stretching north to the Grand Teton. I visited on foot, and from 10,344’ Lookout Peak, tried to imagine endless heavy truck trips, billowing dust, sounds of industry piercing the wilderness, a landscape that’s never dark or quiet, migrations blocked.

Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous Sports in Jackson, Wyoming is a staunch advocate for the Hoback River. Here, Aaron carves a turn after the conservation victory. Hoback River, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous Sports in Jackson, Wyoming is a staunch advocate for the Hoback River. Here, Aaron carves a turn after the conservation victory. Hoback River, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

An assignment in 2010 to write an article titled “Too Wild To Drill” for Wilderness Magazine led me to locals opposed to the gas field. Dave Willoughby, a Daniel, WY environmental logger guided me over rough forest service two-track roads, mucked up enough near the Upper Hoback that we walked the last mile in shoe-sucking mud through an aspen forest avenue of blooming balsamroot wildflowers. From the middle rim overlook, called “Davy’s Hill” for my guide, Dave reminisced of great hunting expeditions, his granddaughter’s first elk, and what this place means to him and his family.

A fresh wolf track in mud confirms just how close to my tent wolves and their soulful were the night before. Noble Basin, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
A fresh wolf track in mud confirms just how close to my tent wolves and their soulful were the night before. Noble Basin, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

Local outfitter Dan Smitherman, about six-five in a Stetson, met with a fellow outfitter who told him in 2010 “you’re wasting your time; they’re going to drill there.” Smitherman, a former marine replied, “I’m going to fight this”, later telling me “I don’t know the meaning of the word can’t.” Dan Smitherman led Citizens For The Wyoming Range”, a coalition of folks from all walks of life, who raised their collective voices at public meetings, and wrote letters –more than 60,000 real letters – and the process dragged out without drilling.

Dave Willoughby gazes across Noble Basin, to where the gas field would have gone. Wyoming Range, Bridger-Teton NF, Wyoming
Dave Willoughby gazes across Noble Basin, to where the gas field would have gone. Wyoming Range, Bridger-Teton NF, Wyoming

Ultimately, The Trust For Public Land bought the leases in the Upper Hoback for close to $10 million and returned the land to the American People in 2013. Intact. Mule deer, already impacted by drilling on critical winter range, still migrate to the Upper Hoback, where wildlife of Greater Yellowstone congregate at the base of Wyoming’s namesake range, refuge for wildlife and people.

Yellowstone National Park, however extraordinary, is not self-sustaining. The ecosystem depends on surrounding “buffer lands” that give wildlife a place to migrate to for fawning season and when Yellowstone is locked in deep snow. Some of those places, like the Upper Hoback, aren’t well known outside of the region, yet as critical to sustainability as Yellowstone itself.

Images, letters, public meetings, reaching out via social media all make a difference; and as long as there is a process, there is hope. With gratitude to all the folks who stood up for the Upper Hoback and don’t know the meaning of the word can’t.

The Milky Way and a sky full of of stars light the night sky over the Upper Hoback River. This area is remarkably dark and quiet at night, a special quality of a special place. Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Bondurant, WY.
The Milky Way and a sky full of of stars light the night sky over the Upper Hoback River. This area is remarkably dark and quiet at night, a special quality of a special place. Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Bondurant, WY.

 

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