The wind blows in Wyoming. So much so that over much of its southern acreage, trees live in a constant state of sideways, bowing to the prevailing forces. Tumbleweed bounces through prairie sagebrush. The earth’s guts, buttes, and sawtooth ridgelines live outside its skin—exposed. There are rivers. And there are generally few roads and people between them.
Despite that, only five percent, or 3.2 million acres, of Wyoming is part of the Inventoried Roadless Area (IRA) chain—publicly accessible backcountry of the wild and uncut National Forest nature. It’s a small pinch on a girthy body of countryside, but it’s significant in a pro-energy state where petitioning to kill the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule is a political imperative.
The Clinton-era policy prohibits roads on nearly 50 million acres of National Forest land across the United States. Earlier this year, Wyoming challenged the rule, alleging that the U.S. Forest Service circumvented Congress and violated the 1964 Wilderness Act when it created de facto wilderness areas. While the roadless rule sits in legal paralysis, and those roads go undeveloped, traffic in the IRA lands that envelope south-central Wyoming’s Encampment River, as well as the Huston Park Wilderness, remains slim. According to Trout Unlimited, undeveloped areas adjacent to and surrounding the two wilderness areas, such as Strawberry Creek, Deep Creek, Battle Creek, and the East Fork of the Encampment, provide critical buffer zones for wildlife and fisheries. Reaching them is a headwater mission that starts in the Sierra Madre Range along the Colorado border. As high-alpine rivulets plummet into Wyoming, several converge to form the Encampment proper, which barrels through rich trout country along its path toward the North Platte.
The Encampment’s upriver corridor includes more than 14 miles of roadless escape. Where the trail ends, the mostly private section of river below the town of Encampment is raft-accessible during a short run-off window in late June. When water levels subside, rafts are benched and backpacking into the upstream public water allows you to put the car in park and throw boots into marching mode. Our first day in the heart of this roadless region began at the end of a rutted two-track. The sign at the entrance prohibited motorized vehicles, so we camouflaged our rig under a tall stand of aspens and set forth on foot. Working downstream several miles we crossed the Encampment River near its East Fork confluence and descended into the belly of a deep, cliff-lined ravine. Bankside foliage revealed crunchy stonefly shucks and several flipped cobblestones housed wriggling green drake nymphs, waiting for the river to climb into optimal temperature range to take flight.
Along that eight-mile roundtrip we convinced trout to chow pine squirrel leeches in the oxygenated recesses of a swift riffle head. At noon, the cutts switched to drys—and we did the same. We sourced a couple of prime swimming holes, dodged still-steaming moose scat, and encountered only two other flyfishers back at the trailhead.
South-central Wyoming’s Sierra Madre Range is a wildlife stronghold, with quality elk, mule deer, and moose habitat, as well as prime Colorado River cutthroat waters. Its designated wilderness and IRA zones are crucial for watersheds as well as wildlife migration routes, all true of areas devoid of major road development.
That lack of interior arteries also spells limited access—the kind of impediments that stoke solitude seekers and raise the ire of those ready to chop, hammer, and frack into what’s above and below the ground. It’s no secret that gas and coalbed methane proponents see IRAs in the Sierra Madre Range as a roadblock to resource extraction. But TU says keeping the intermediate areas between the high country and the desert free from development preserves a priceless bounty of wildlife quality and quantity. Wild Colorado River cutts would agree.
Last February, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously denied what was deemed to be Wyoming’s last-ditch effort to argue the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The Wilderness Society, represented by Earthjustice, played an integral part in the case by defending the roadless rule to the end. Still, Wyoming’s political winds, like those on the prairie, won’t quit blowing, and the state is now petitioning the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari—whereby four Supreme Court Justices must all agree to hear the case for it to move forward.
Meantime, the Encampment Wilderness and its adjacent IRA lands remain wildly untouched on a minuscule percentage of public land that’s doing just fine, thanks, without drilling exploration rigs parked next to the river.