Tom Ross: Pinedale a changing Western town

Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

A great deal can change during the course of seven years in a mountain town, whether it's Steamboat Springs or Pinedale, Wyo.

I barely recognized Pinedale's main drag when we drove in from Rock Springs last week. There are new buildings on Pine Street, including a gaggle of chain motels, with more under construction.

My last trip had been in late summer of 2001, when a buddy and I backpacked in the Wind River Range. Views of Fremont Peak dominate the Pinedale skyline.

That was an unusually warm summer in the high country of Colorado and Wyoming. When we trekked out of the wilderness after six days and told folks in Pinedale that we had been swimming in Elbow Lake, they were stunned.

"Nobody swims in Elbow Lake," they said. "It always has icebergs in it."

Despite the changes on Pine Street, Pinedale remains unchanged in many ways. The Cattlemen's still serves steak and the Cowboy Shop still sells shirts with pearl snaps down the front. Pinedale always has reminded me of a hybrid of Walden and Craig, with just a touch of Steamboat thrown in. It sits at 7,100 feet, 77 miles south of Jackson. The population of Pinedale proper is fewer than 1,500 souls, but urban sprawl is evident around the town of Boulder to the south.

On a cloudless Monday, a tour bus pulled up in front of the Cowboy Shop and unloaded a gaggle of German tourists looking for authentic Western hats.

The real changes in the Green River Valley are taking place outside Pinedale in Sublette County, where oil and gas rigs have transformed the high plains where fur trappers held their annual rendezvous in the 1830s.

The Pinedale Anticline and the Jonah Field already were bustling with drilling rigs before the Department of Interior made big news this month.

Energy exploration is such a big business in Sublette County, the Pinedale Roundup publishes a monthly special section called ROUGHNECK.

The coverage in the ROUGHNECK reflects that the large Canadian energy company, EnCana, and its employees, are very active in the community. They purchase 4-H animals at the county fair and man the grills at barbecues benefiting local causes. The company recently announced contributions to emergency medical response agencies in the sparsely populated county.

Writer Stephen Crane reported on Sept. 17 that the Department of the Interior had announced a decision that would allow the drilling of 4,399 new wells on the 198,000 acres that comprise the Pinedale Anticline Project Area. The wells could be drilled on 600 new well pads.

The decision would allow energy companies to recover 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, Crane wrote, an amount that is expected to generate $16 billion in royalties. Of that total, half of the royalties would go to the state of Wyoming.

Pinedale, fewer than six hours away by automobile, provides a glimpse of what the future could hold for Colorado's Western Slope. It's worth a visit, both for the hiking in the Wind River Range and for the opportunity to understand how energy development is changing a traditional Western town.

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