Photographic tour: Top 12 places that are too wild to drill

Across the country the drive to drill is sending oil and gas development deeper into our wildest, most beloved public lands. But some lands are simply too wild to drill. Our new Too Wild to Drill report spotlights 12 such places - places that need protection today. You may be shocked to learn that oil and gas drilling could soon creep up on lands on the border of these beloved lands - or in some cases right inside wildlife refuges and top outdoor recreation spots.  

Take a photographic tour of these 12 threatened wild places. Then help us fight to keep them protected. 

1) Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park, Utah | Parudox, Flickr

In the heart of Utah’s red rock country, Arches National Park is a wonderland of mind-bending stone formations. The Park has more than two thousand natural stone arches, including the iconic Delicate Arch. 

Proposed drilling at Arches: In late 2008, leases were proposed on the border of Arches National Park. Well pads and infrastructure would be visible from the park's popular attractions and stone formations. Only a successful lawsuit from conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, stopped the Bureau of Land Management from completing the lease sale. The Bureau of Land Management is now preparing a master leasing plan to manage the areas around Arches National Park, as well as Canyonlands National Park. This plan must protect the areas around these parks from leasing and drilling, and consider the impacts of what drilling near the parks would have on them.

2) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

ANWR, Alaska | Steven Chase, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Far to the north, above the Arctic Circle, lies Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -  one of the most pristine places in the world. Known as the crown jewel of the refuge system, the Arctic Refuge is home to roaming polar bears and massive caribou herds.

Proposed drilling in the Arctic Refuge: Proposals to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling go back decades – including the high-stakes battle in Congress in the early 2000's. Currently, the 113th Congress is considering three bills to open the coastal plain to oil drilling. Alaska’s governor, Sean Parnell, has also offered up to $50 million to send seismic testing equipment into the Arctic Refuge, potentially disturbing polar bears and cubs in their winter dens. Only a federal wilderness designation will protect the Refuge from relentless calls to drill. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should finalize its plan for managing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and recommend that the coastal plain be designated as protected wilderness. Congress should also act, and pass legislation to add the coastal plain to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

3) Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico | Travis S., Flickr

Update: On Wednesday, Sept. 4, the BLM released an environmental assessment for the Chaco Canyon lease sale. They are now calling for cutting the number of available parcels from 38 to four. 

Located in the Four Corners region of Northern New Mexico, Chaco Canyon was once inhabited or visited by a number of Native American peoples, including the Navajo and Hopi. It is home to some of America’s most abundant and intact Native American artifacts and a world renowned night sky that is truly timeless.

Proposed drilling in Chaco Canyon: The Bureau of Land Management is currently offering leases on lands right outside the park boundaries. These leases would mar the views from the park, and pollute the air in and around this historic site. Perhaps worse, other potential leases in the area are in areas with unprotected Chacoan ruins, which could be lost forever if leases are sold and developed. The BLM can protect the area around Chaco Canyon by creating what’s called a Master Leasing Plan. This plan would identify and evaluate the land so that sensitive and culturally valuable areas can be kept safe from drilling, and areas more appropriate for drilling can be leased.

4) Desolation Canyon, Utah

Desolation Canyon, Utah | Fred Hanselmann

Carved by the Green River’s winding course through red rock canyons, Desolation Canyon sounds like a forbidding, inhospitable place. But this stretch of eastern Utah is an adventurer’s playground of juniper and cottonwood trees, multicolored rocks, spires, and ancient American Indian rock art and archaeological sites. It’s also a magnet for river rafters for its whitewater, scenery and history.

Proposed drilling in Desolation Canyon: In June 2012, the Bureau of Land Management approved a plan to allow nearly 1,300 oil and gas wells to be drilled in the Desolation Canyon area. More than 200 of these wells would be drilled in a part of Desolation Canyon so sensitive that it has been found suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System – reserved for the wildest and most untrammeled places. The BLM should use its authority to prevent drilling any of the 200 wells proposed in the wilderness-caliber lands in the Desolation Canyon area. 

5) Greater Dinosaur Region, Colorado

Dinosaur, Colorado | Jackson Frishman

The lands in and around Colorado's Dinosaur National Monument are etched with history – literally. Fremont and Ute peoples left their petroglyphs and pictographs on the sandstone walls and hidden alcoves along the Yampa River; the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 brought the first Europeans to visit the Green River and observe the geographic wonder of Split Mountain; and Butch Cassidy and other outlaws used the remote basin of Browns Park to hide out and plan their next heist.

Proposed drilling in Greater Dinosaur: Over the years, and over strenuous and often successful objections, the BLM has issued dozens of oil and gas leases in the landscape that surrounds Dinosaur National Monument. This has occurred in spite of repeated objections from the National Park Service and others concerned about the potential impacts of widespread drilling on the monument’s pristine night skies and recreation and tourism opportunities. The BLM is now preparing a “master leasing plan” for the area—a step in the right direction— but it has signaled that it will resume leasing around Dinosaur before the MLP is finished. The BLM must develop a plan that will protect the wilderness, wildlife and water that characterize Greater Dinosaur.

6) George Washington National Forest, Virginia

George Washington National Forest, Virginia | John W. Iwanski, Flickr

The George Washington National Forest is home to the headwaters of the Potomac and James Rivers that flow through two capital cities, Washington D.C. and Richmond, Va. One of the largest forests in the eastern U.S., it’s more known for its rolling hills blanketed with trees than it is for energy potential. But natural gas drilling, along with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” could be coming to this wild forest.

Proposed drilling in the George Washington National Forest: The U.S. Forest Service originally disallowed horizontal drilling and fracking for natural gas within the George Washington National Forest boundaries. However, after pushback from the natural gas industry, the Forest Service began reconsidering. The biggest concern is that some of the chemicals used in the fracking process could contaminate drinking water for many communities. Hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, and companies do not have to disclose what chemicals they are using in their fracking fluid. The U.S. Forest Service should continue its ban on horizontal drilling and fracking in the George Washington National Forest, where the risks are just too great.

7) Los Padres National Forest, California

Los Padres National Forest, California | Miguel Vieira

Just outside Los Angeles, the Los Padres National Forest is an easy day-adventure for urbanites. The Los Padres was where one of the last wild California condors – one of the most endangered birds in the world – was found and reintroduced; and nearly two dozen other endangered species reside in the forest. It’s one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world, with ecosystems ranging from coastal habitats to classic California redwood groves. It is also the main source of drinking water for the Santa Barbara area – the majority of the area’s water starts in the hills and valleys of the Los Padres. Water from the forest supports two huge industries in California – farming and winemaking. Tourism is also a huge draw to the area, but tourists generally come to see nature, not oil rigs.

Proposed drilling in Los Padres National Forest: leasing decisions in the area could open more han 52,000 acres to oil drilling. Drilling would be limited to 5,000 acres of surface occupancy, making horizontal drilling and fracking almost required for the wells. Drilling would also threaten the habitat of the endangered California condor - three of the drilling areas are right next to essential condor habitat. The oil industry already has 180 operating wells in less sensitive parts of the Los Padres – they don’t need to drill in fragile environmental areas.The USFS and BLM should fully consider the impacts of drilling in the wildest places of the Los Padres National Forest, and prohibit or restrict drilling where it would have a serious impact on water and wildlife.

8) North Fork of the Flathead River, Montana

North Fork, Flathead River, Montana | Bryant Olsen

The North Fork of the Flathead spans the U.S. and Canadian border and forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park. It is one of the wildest river valleys in the continental United States and located in a region named the “Crown of the Continent” for its clean water and unspoiled forests, mountains and wildlife. The North Fork is home to one of the densest populations of grizzly bears in the country and is a stronghold for disappearing native bull trout and west slope cutthroat trout.

Drilling in the North Fork of the Flathead: For a hundred years, companies have tried to pull energy and minerals from the ground beneath the Flathead valley without success. Every decade saw a new threat on one or both sides of the international border which resulted in international conflict and newspaper headlines. But thanks to international cooperation, Canada and the U.S. are both working to protect the North Fork of the Flathead in their respective territories. Congress should take immediate action on the North Fork Flathead Watershed Protection Act, and finalize the agreement to protect this wild forest.

9) Otero Mesa, New Mexico

Otero Mesa | NMWA

Hidden on the Texas-New Mexico border near Carlsbad are America’s largest remaining intact Chihuahuan grasslands, totaling over 1.2 million acres. Thousands of ancient petroglyphs and archeological sites can be found on Otero Mesa’s volcanic Cornudas Mountains, including several ruins from the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach Route. 

Drilling in Otero Mesa: Past proposals to drill in Otero Mesa have been rebuffed, but until the area is fully protected, it will be at risk. A new plan from the BLM for the region is under development and until a final plan is adopted, Otero Mesa will continue to face a growing threat from extractive industries. For more than a decade a number of unlikely allies have stood together in calling for the permanent protection of this rare and beautiful grassland, as well as its freshwater resources within the Salt Basin Aquifer. From members of the Mescalero Apache, to state elected officials, to religious leaders and conservationists, a wide array of people have asked for a long-term plan for Otero Mesa that would ensure that its cultural, scientific and ecological values are protected for future generations. The BLM’s new plan should prohibit drilling in Otero Mesa to protect its wild qualities.

10) The Red Desert, Wyoming

Red Desert, Wyoming | Dan Hayward

The Red Desert of southwest Wyoming is a remote, wild landscape of multi-colored buttes and, badlands. Wyoming citizens have sought to protect the area since 1898 - first as a Winter Game Preserve, then later as a National Park, National Wildlife Refuge. This high, cold desert environment supports a large diversity of wildlife, including mule deer, antelope, a rare desert elk herd, raptors and rare songbirds like Scott’s oriole and the blue-gray flycatcher. Bands of wild horses roam this area of volcanic rock formations, hoodoos and sand dunes. Sprawling over more than 400,000 acres, the greater Red Desert is called the “crown jewel” of Wyoming’s desert wilderness.

Proposed drilling for the Red Desert: Much of the Red Desert, especially around Adobe Town, is potentially open to oil and gas drilling – casting a dark shadow over this wild landscape. The BLM is currently developing management plans for the Red Desert. These plans should protect backcountry recreation and wilderness-quality lands for everyone to enjoy.

11) Thompson Divide, Western Colorado

Thompson Divide, Colorado | EcoFlight

The Thompson Divide is home to ranchers, blue-ribbon trout streams, and some of the most sought after hunting grounds in Colorado. The 221,000 acre swath of ranchlands and mid-altitude forests is also the source of the region’s agricultural and drinking water. Hikers, mountain bikers and campers enjoy the unparalleled trails throughout the forests, and climbers scale the Thompson Creek Fins. The Thompson Divide area has been ranched for more than a century, and it remains one of the strongest enclaves of traditional ranching culture on the Western Slope.

Proposed drilling in the Thompson Divide: In 2003 the Bush Administration issued 81 mineral leases in the Thompson Divide area covering approximately 105,000 acres. These leases had little to no protections for landowners, who could see their property invaded by trucks and well pads from the oil companies. Legislation has been introduced by Colorado Senator Michael Bennet to withdraw lands from future leasing in the Thompson Divide. This would ensure that the wild lands in the area would be kept safe for traditional uses like ranching, hunting and angling, as well as the wide array of recreational opportunities that drive the region’s economy.

12) Wyoming Range

Wyoming Range | Jared White

While visitors are more likely to crowd nearby Grand Teton National Park, the Wyoming Range provides areas for local Wyoming residents to hunt and fish and camp with their families. The Range is renowned for its big game and native cutthroat trout. Hunting and fishing alone from these 44,700 acres contributes $5.2 million annually to local economies. In addition, the eastern gateway is regularly used by backpackers and hikers who traverse the 70-mile Wyoming Range National Scenic Trail. 

Proposed drilling in the Wyoming Range: It’s been nearly a decade since the federal government first sparked a firestorm by targeting the Wyoming Range for new energy development. Since then folks from all backgrounds have worked to keep energy development out of the Wyoming Range – first by passing the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which withdrew 1.2 million acres from new oil and gas leasing, and then through the voluntary purchase of grandfathered energy leases in the Hoback Basin in the northern part of the Range. To this day however, the original conflict that began the fight for the Wyoming Range remains unresolved. 44,700 acres – located in the gateway to the Wyoming Range – remain under threat with a leasing decision pending this year. The U.S. Forest Service should keep these leases from being developed, keeping the Wyoming Range wild and safe from drilling.

Read the Too Wild to Drill Report here.