Citizens for the Red Desert unite!

Late last year, Citizens for the Red Desert brought together a diverse group of allies to discuss their shared love of the Red Desert and how to protect its many magical qualities. The purpose of the outing was to unite these citizens — ranging from outfitters, hikers, hunters, wildlife experts, and tribal members, to nonprofit staff members, union workers, and people of faith — so that they could learn from each other and discuss how best to advocate for the Red Desert in a way that honors everyone’s interest and protects Wyoming’s heritage. The group gradually came together over the course of 2020 and is now promoting public awareness of the landscape with the mission of keeping it wild and intact.

That September day began in the “Big Empty” — one of the many names that describes the vast open expanse of the Red Desert — with a prayer by Eastern Shoshone tribal member Jason Baldes, in which he blessed the landscape that sustains the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the many forms of life that dwell there. 

On the tour the group stopped at several key locations such as Steamboat Mountain where Baldes shared the history of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and other Indigenous peoples. The citizens learned that the first Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863 included 44 million acres of land in parts of Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, and all of the Red Desert for the Shoshone people. In 1868, the treaty was amended, significantly reducing the reservation boundary to one-tenth of what it was just five years earlier. Many tribes depended upon the buffalo herds that roamed in this area for food at this time. Baldes also pointed out the importance of the buffalo jump at Steamboat Mountain, where many tribes hunted this iconic, keystone species. Today, although the bison no longer roam the Red Desert and the land is not part of the reservation, it stands as a reminder that public lands are Native lands. 

Jason Baldes speaks about the buffalo jump to citizen leaders on top of Steamboat Mountain. Image: Kirk Rasmussen

At a junction near the Pinnacles Wilderness Study Area, ethnobotanist John Mionczynski spoke of the Red Desert’s history and the many plants people use on the landscape. Mionczynski came to Wyoming as a prospector in the 1960s looking for precious metals and stones like jade, gold, and copper. Mionczynski is a local legend for his deep understanding of traditional wild plant uses for food and medicine.  He spoke extensively about the importance of biscuit root — a plant best harvested in the early spring and used to make bread. Other vital plants he discussed included wild cilantro, pigweed, goosefoot, rumex vinosus (which grows in the sand dunes), and pine nuts, all of which were and still are used by different native peoples in the Red Desert. He passed around samples of jade as well as other treasures he’s found in the desert, like an ox shoe unearthed from the many emigrant and stage trails that bisect the heart of the Red Desert. 

As the group neared the end of the trip, they paused in the Honeycomb Buttes Wilderness Study Area to share concerns about the threats to the Red Desert and the options for its protection. Later that week, some members continued these important conversations around a fire at the Cutoff Ranch, located in the Golden Triangle.  

The Golden Triangle is the name given to the land north of Highway 28 and south of the Wind River Mountains to describe the abundance of wildlife that lives there, especially sage-grouse and big game species. This portion of the Red Desert, as explained by Tom Christiansen, a retired Game and Fish wildlife biologist, contains some of the most densely populated sage-grouse lands in the West. The area is also known for the mule deer and pronghorn migrations that cross the desert, linking the sagebrush steppe to the mountain prairies at higher elevations. 

Within the Honeycomb Buttes, leaders of Citizens for the Red Desert talk about the future of the Red Desert and what needs to be done to protect the many uses enjoyed by its members. Image: Kirk Rasmussen

Some of the members of this newly-formed and passionate citizens group who were present that day include: Patti Harris, a Northern Arapaho tribal member with the Wind River Native Advocacy Center; local outfitter Bobbi Wade, Wyoming Interfaith Network leader Warren Murphy and director Jordon Bishop; retired Bureau of Land Management archeologist and advisor to the Alliance for Historic Trials Craig Bromley; AFL-CIO representative Tammy Johnson; and NOLS representative Jonathan Williams, among others. 

United in their belief that the Red Desert is both a global resource and a hidden gem in Wyoming, the group is looking forward to convening more in 2021 to discuss the next steps to ensure the spirit of the Red Desert is retained in the future for all.