The first time I saw the Pawnee National Grassland, I was on a quest to find a ghost town I’d heard about. It shared its name with my place of birth; a small town in Oklahoma called Purcell. Aside from the name, I think my curiosity is the only thing these two places ever had in common. But that was enough connection to inspire my first Grassland walkabout.
I eventually found Colorado’s Purcell, or at least the last old wind-twisted buildings and foundations that remained of it. Most of the place had blown away or been buried under the dust a half century before I passed through. What’s left now is tucked away near four scraggly, out-of-place trees located in what most folks think of as “the middle of nowhere,” aka the empty plains of Northeastern Colorado.
But everywhere is somewhere, even when it’s empty of most things.
That trip turned out to be the first of many I’d make to this prehistoric-looking landscape over the next 30 years. For me, the Grassland has long been a refuge, a place I run to when stress or indecision or people in general became too much to bear. I love it for its lack.
Aside from the occasional skeleton of a long-ago failed homestead or town, or a hawk or Golden Eagle floating overhead, the Grassland is — or at least was until the last three years or so — devoid of most things, particularly the distractions of the modern world.
These high plains have always seemed a defiant, unconquered place to me. A landscape lost in time, influenced more by the wind than the hand of man, despite a century of human effort to carve them into something profitable.
The earliest known inhabitants of the Grassland were hunter-gatherers who appeared about 11,000 years ago. Numerous artifacts from that time forward have been found at the Grassland but most of it remains unexplored as far as archeology goes.
Later Native American inhabitants included the Pawnee, Shoshone, Apache, Comanche, Arapaho and Cheyenne, all of whom hunted bison as they migrated in massive herds across the region.
These early inhabitants took only what the land gave and so it was a sustainable arrangement environmentally speaking. But that all changed with the coming of the railroad and the settlers who hitched a ride, carried west by the promise of free land.
By the late 1860s, the Union Pacific had made its way across the northern portion of the Grassland. By the mid-1880s, the bison were gone, hunted to near extinction for their hides and depriving the native peoples of their most important food source. The bison apparently made no sound in the forest when they fell.
Barbed wire brought an end to the once great open range and the homesteaders did what homesteaders do, they tried to tame the land.
By the turn of the century, most of the 193,060 acres that today comprise the nearly treeless Pawnee National Grassland (which is, ironically, part of the Arapaho National Forest) were under the plow. But the Grassland had a secret formula for survival: it lacked water, had poor soil and inconsistent weather. All this worked together to defeat the early settlers and all who came after them.
For more than 50 years, people attempted to create a viable commodity-based economy on this massive piece of prairie and failed. Its cycles of drought and flood, hail, insects and epidemics broke every wave of sodbusters who tried to convert its yucca, prickly pear and prairie grasses into wheat or anything else that could be sold.
And then, like a giant end-block to a story, the Dust Bowl hit and the settlers gave up in mass as they watched the last of their dreams blow back to the cities and towns of the east from where they’d come. The Grassland won that round.
Before the Dust Bowl, the Grassland had more than 600 families trying to scrape out a living by way of dry-land wheat farming or something equally futile due to its dependence on the fickle weather. By the mid-1930s, only 64 families remained and most of those vanished soon thereafter.
During 1933-34, the federal government tried using the Great Depression’s Work Project Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA) to help the desperate farmers of the Grassland, but these programs only extended their misery for a short while.
About 15 years ago, I gave a ride to a local cowboy I found walking down a dirt road just north of the old Briggsdale townsite. We spent much of the day together driving slowly over narrow two-track trails most likely made by wagons. He showed me several of the WPA projects he’d stumbled onto over the years while working cattle or just out exploring.
What I remember most were these large bone-dry reservoirs with their cracked earth bottoms and remarkably intact dams stretched across dry ravines and holding back nothing but the wind. They seemed unchanged by time as they sat there 70 years later still waiting for the water that never came. They reminded me of movie ghosts who can’t move on to the afterlife because of some unfinished business in their previous incarnation.
In the end, the WPA efforts failed to stem the inevitable.
The U.S. Forest Service describes what happened next on its website.
“Emergency funding was soon provided to resettle some of the families. The first land was purchased by 1934 and the families relocated on land more conducive to farming. Congress passed the ‘Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act’ in 1937, authorizing the Soil Conservation Service to purchase sub-marginal farmland. The same year, the Resettlement Administration was formed in the Department of Agriculture. The stated objectives of the new office were: ‘to relocate families, purchase the more severely damaged lands and exert influence on the use of the neighboring land, and maintain stability and flexibility of the land.’ Finally, in 1938 responsibility was given to the Soil Conservation Service where it remained until 1954, when it was transferred to the United States Forest Service (USFS). During the period of 1934-54, most of the present area [Pawnee National Grassland] was acquired through purchase and in some cases by mutual transfer (swapping).”
So that’s how the Grassland, a place once broken into countless pieces by railroads, barbed wire, farmers, ranchers and towns came to be put back together again and allowed to return to its natural prairie state under the authority of the U.S. Forest Service.
This story might have had a happy ending if not for one other footnote in the Grassland’s history.
In 1924, near what is today the ghost town of Keota, drought and a spate of hard winters caused the town’s few remaining citizens to seek out an alternative means of making a living. With seemingly no other option, they pooled the last of their resources and formed the Pioneers Oil and Gas Association. They drilled a few wells, and while they did find oil, it was too little, too late and the town soon surrendered to the elements.
But oil is not the kind of thing people forget.
Over the years a few more wells were drilled here and there but nothing to write home about, or more importantly, nothing that significantly threatened the Grassland’s ecosystem. By 1986, there were only 21 oil and gas leases in the Pawnee National Grassland held by production. By 2012, that number had increased only slightly and there were just 63 active vertically drilled wells and 19 very small production platforms under the oversight of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that has the final say over the authorization of oil and gas activity on all lands under the U.S. Forest Service umbrella.
But times change and so does technology.
On its website, as of the writing of this article, the Forest Service still posts the following description of current oil and gas operations on the Grassland under a “frequently asked questions” header: “Most wells consist of a pumping unit (pump jack) and two to four above ground storage tanks along with one or two heater-treaters, possibly a gas sales meter. Wells, along with the access roads, typically occupy about 1.0 to 1.5 acres.”
As you can see from the photos accompanying this story, this information is simply wrong, out of date, incredibly misleading and likely intentionally so. The USFS can only get away with providing such false information because so few people visit the Pawnee National Grassland.
Everything has changed in the past three years due to the horizontal drilling and fracking of the Niobrara shale formation that underlies nearly the entirety of the Grassland. I hope and believe that if the Forest Service were to accurately and honestly describe the large-scale environmental carnage that is now occurring on these public lands, the outcry of Coloradans who care deeply for their state would be heard all the way to Washington D.C.
Allowing the current level of unchecked environmental destruction to occur at the Pawnee National Grassland makes it clear that it is one of those places in the West that people have largely forgotten. Most folks have never been there and frankly wouldn’t know the Grassland even exists if it weren’t for the obligatory photo of the Pawnee Buttes at sunset that always gets included on the border of gas-station road maps to our state or in John Fielder coffee-table books.
If you want proof the Grassland has been forgotten, just Google it and read.
One website after another offers up the same information, something along the lines of: the Grassland is a hauntingly beautiful and empty landscape home to the deer and the antelope; It is an important world-class birding area offering up a large variety of species from the endangered burrowing owl to mountain plovers, ferrugionous hawks, lark buntings and golden eagles; And migratory birds by the thousands visit each year.
Wikipedia still says the Pawnee National Grassland is “especially depopulated.” Which is only true today if you don’t count all the laborers who commute in everyday in support of the oil wells and massive production platforms that spew hundreds of tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air every year; the countless rows of bird-killing wind turbines; the multitude of trucks throwing up dust from the endless miles of newly cut gravel roads; or any of the other industrial activity that has fully invaded this once protected landscape.
All of the Internet’s bucolic descriptions of the Grassland were once true, and not that long ago. But it’s clear that hardly anyone has been keeping tabs on the area of late. If they had we would find descriptions of how wind turbines now comingle with oil wells on the bluffs above the Pawnee Buttes where birds of prey used to roost as they watched for inattentive prairie dogs below.
We’d be reading how the Grassland is under siege by the oil and gas industry, which is now building the state’s largest well pads and stacking them literally end to end in some places. We’d be seeing photos of the new production platforms that cover many acres each and dwarf similar industrial sites being built elsewhere in the state. The Grassland today is what the oil and gas industry and BLM do when they think that nobody is watching.
But it appears that people are starting to take notice.
On Thursday, Nov. 12, the BLM held an oil and gas lease auction at its offices in Lakewood. Inside the building, the BLM was selling off oil and gas leases covering another 73,388 acres of the Pawnee National Grassland. At the end of the day, the BLM sent out a press release touting its success at having sold off the Grassland’s mineral rights for $4.2 million. What they didn’t point out was that this figure represents only an average price of a paltry $57 per acre. While I was taking photos in the auction room, one parcel was sold for $2 an acre; two lousy bucks for the right to extract oil and gas from our public lands in a sensitive ecosystem. Not sure I’d be boasting about that if I were them.
Sadly, giving away the resources of our public lands has become a longstanding tradition at the BLM. But what made this sale different was what was happening outside.
All along the sidewalk in front of the BLM building, more than 100 concerned citizens held banners and signs protesting the auction that was happening inside. The messages ranged from “stop fracking” to “keep it in the ground,” the latter referencing the scientific community’s consensus that in order to prevent and/or reverse the climate crisis, we must leave at least 80 percent of known hydrocarbon reserves in the ground and unused.
One group of protesters sat down blocking the main entrance to the BLM parking lot, sparking a response from local law enforcement who, in the end, let them stay put mainly because oil industry and BLM employees were still able to use a side entrance to the lot and attend the auction.
At one point the auctioneer insinuated to the bidding oil and gas folks inside that the protetors outside were “eco-terrorists.”
It turned out to be an ironic accusation considering that after the lease sale was over, according to witnesses, one of the auctioneers honked at the protestors trying to get them to move from the exit. When they refused to do so, he proceeded anyway, hitting protester Russell Mendell with his car. Mendell was taken to a local hospital by ambulance. Witnesses said the police, who had watched the event unfold, stopped the auctioneer but then let him leave via the side exit.
What all this means is pretty clear. The battle over oil and gas extraction is heating up. It isn’t going away because of $20 million worth of “fracking is good for you” ads on TV, or bought and paid for Energy and Environment sections that push for unbridled oil and gas extraction in The Denver Post. People are paying attention even to the less popular parts of our state.
It’s understandable why we flock to the grandeur of the mountains or crawl all over each other for a spot along a crystal clear river or near a lake. We plan our vacations around the chance to stand on the edge and stare out over a vast canyon or gorge. When it comes to topography, we are a discriminatory lot.
I think of our nation’s dramatic landscapes like a video game: they stimulate us at every turn without much effort needed on our part. We find them beautiful so we protect them. But when it comes to the plains, we too often act like a 10-year-old whose game has run out of battery, whining of boredom as if flat and empty places are the opposite of beauty and therefore unworthy of our concern. We think to ourselves, “If we have to compromise, let them ruin that.”
This discrimination against the plains has come at serious cost. Our absence from them both physically and emotionally has allowed the oil and gas industry to destroy them before we even knew they were threatened. But now we know. And now we must act responsibly to protect them.
We turned a blind eye as Native Americans and the buffalo were wiped from the Grassland 130 years ago. We didn’t know enough about the environment to keep the Grassland away from the plow until it was too late to stop the Dust Bowl. But what will be our excuse this time? Don’t we know better now?
We would never allow this level of environmental destruction of our public lands at the hands of any industry if it were occurring in our mountains or along our coastline. So why do we so easily surrender the important and fragile eco-system of the Grassland? Perhaps it’s time for more of us to join those who have heard the grass falling and are taking action to protect what’s left by demanding that climate-changing fossil fuels beneath the Pawnee National Grassland be left in the ground.
As for me, I’ll continue to make my Grassland pilgrimages until the last of it’s gone or saved. Sadly, it will never be the same. It’s already too late for that.
The Great Plains, and in particular the vast expanse of the Grassland, are not akin to a video game. They are like a good book. They require effort. You have to bring your imagination and intellect. You have to invest your time to get the full experience. But when you do, the reward is great and like nothing else. Let’s make sure the next generation still has something to read.