"Table Mountain, Red Desert, Wyoming" by WyomingMigrationInitiative is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Who’s Afraid Of Wyoming’s Land Sanctuaries? A Play In One Act

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The Biden administration has protected a number of environmentally fragile lands and enacted the most profound climate legislation ever in the US. Steve Cohen of the Columbia Climate School commends the administration’s climate and conservation actions. “President Biden was able to win extraordinary amounts of environmental funding for energy, water, and other key programs because he understands that incentives for building a green economy are easier to sell than punishments for pollution.”

If that is so, then why are so many of Wyoming’s citizens staging massive vocal protests over an administration proposal that would block oil and gas drilling on 1.6 million acres of high desert sagebrush steppe in that state?

If the issue were not so important, the vitriol might be amusing. Maybe it’s time to step away from the bursting emotions and use the aesthetics of drama to understand the cast of Wyoming’s characters and what motivates them. And, why not? With the television series, Yellowstone drawing such a huge and enthusiastic audience, maybe we need to turn to a new genre to see ourselves in fine relief during this tumultuous year.

Who’s Afraid Of Wyoming’s Land Sanctuaries?

by Carolyn Fortuna

“Wyoming State Capitol Post Card” by Marxchivist is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The setting is Wyoming’s capitol building in Cheyenne. The atmosphere is tense; it is as if the air is charged with electricity. Inside, the Republican-led enclave swirls with confidence enriched by layers of loathing. Legislative aides scurry back and forth from the chamber, scribbling summary notes in the margins of a 1,350-page proposal. If enacted, it will alter the way that 3.6 million acres of federal land in southwest Wyoming are managed. Unveiled in August, it is a document that has been years in the making. 

The lights fade in and out and fall on different lawmakers as they speak.

Lawmaker #1: President Biden’s plan is no less than an attempt at total government control.

Lawmaker #2: It’s the worst disaster in American history. It’s hurting more people than the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11 combined.

Lawmaker #1: If this keeps up, we’re gonna have China telling us how to run our government.

State Senator Brian Boner (addresses the audience): The situation is ripe for this sort of anger to come to the surface.

Lawmaker #3: BLM has done it this time. We’re not just gonna stand by and let the feds take our state. It’s a federal land grab, pure and simple.

State Senator Brian Boner: The federal government already owns nearly half of Wyoming land.

Lawmaker #1: If we let him, Biden will pull Wyoming back to the Stone Age.

Lawmaker #2: Why doesn’t Biden forget about this ridiculous clean energy agenda and focus on the war between Israel and Hamas? Sh*t. Before you know it, the whole global oil market will collapse. And then where will we be?

The scene moves outside to the steps of the Capitol building. Flags flank the entrance and slap in the wind. Governor Mark Gordon, a Republican, is holding an interview. He wears a dark blue jacket, white shirt, and red tie. A number of people listen to the governor’s speech. Several applaud. Others look on blankly.

Governor Gordon: I think people in Wyoming realize this administration has put its foot on the neck of their state. The actions that this administration has taken to date have been perilous for Wyoming, by and large.

Lobbyist (speaking in the stage left shadows to Governor Gordon’s chief of staff): You know. Experts are calling this situation in the Middle East a huge threat to energy supplies. Could be bigger than when Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

Chief of Staff: This is an opportunity for Wyoming. We’re already the nation’s top coal-producing state. Hey, we hold about 40% of all reserves in the country.

Lobbyist: Keep reminding that to Wyoming’s voters. Remind them that Wyoming was the 8th largest crude oil producing state last year. That means Wyoming generated 3% of national production. It’s crucially important.

The scene shifts back to the press conference.

Governor Gordon: I had hoped we could defuse the discord. I’m ordering the University of Wyoming to hold workshops. I want everyone to come together. Conservationists. People with grazing interests. Hunters. Recreationists. Even oil and gas industry officials and the general public. I want everyone to discuss the various options within the plan.

Dialogue switches to stage right. 

BLM staff member: The phone keeps ringing. My family doesn’t answer it anymore. I don’t know what I’m going to do if these violent threats don’t stop.

Kimberlee Foster, director of a BLM field office: It’s not really about specifics in the document. The hate has been more political in nature.

FBI agent: Ma’am. Our investigation is ongoing. (He surveys the crowd around the governor and below to the protesters.) It’s best not to talk about this to the press.

BLM spokesperson Brian Hires: There’s been a significant area of misinformation. People don’t seem to understand what public access to these public lands will look like under the Biden plan.

BLM staff member: Yeah. I’ve heard rumors about no longer being able to walk your dog on public lands. Or that roads will be closing. Hunting no longer  allowed.

Brian Hires: None of this is true. We’re taking every opportunity to separate fact from fiction.

Below them, two groups of people have gathered. One is comprised of hundreds of Wyoming’s residents. They mill about and are restive. Some hold signs. “Biden: Keep out of Wyoming.” “It’s our land. We’ll develop it our way.” “Energy development is job development.”  “1.6 million acres: Our future is at stake.”  “My family is a mining family.” “Grazing is life.” 

A second group, this one composed of climate activists, is cordoned off from the expansive gathering of Wyoming’s disgruntled residents. Their conversations about the rise and fall with volume and intensity.

Environmentalist #1: What are they thinking? Man, this is where it’s at. There are petroglyphs in the Red Desert. Dating back, like, 200 years.

Environmentalist #2: North America’s largest sand dunes, too.

Environmentalist #1: Don’t forget the migration corridors. Those bighorn sheep and mule deer and elk are something else. So impressive. So vulnerable.

A screen unfurls from the theater’s rafters. On it is displayed an aerial view of a barren-looking landscape with low, rolling hills. Beyond, coal-fired smokestacks smudge the clear and blue sky with white tendrils of exhaust. 

Youthful Activist #1: Yeah. Well. We can’t forget that Biden approved all those very large and very dangerous fossil fuel projects.

Julia Stuble, senior manager for Wyoming at the Wilderness Society: Nearly half of the Rock Springs management area had already been leased for oil and gas.

Youthful Activist #1: (continuing on as if she wasn’t listening) I thought he was too old. But I voted for him anyway. He pledged to end new federal oil and gas leasing. I wanted to believe in him. To believe that he understood our future is at stake.

The screen retracts, and the action returns to the two groups of protesters. The Environmentalists overhear the conversation of the Youthful Activists.

Environmentalist #2: Yeah, okay. But, as president, he wants to conserve at least 30% of public lands and waters. By 2030! That’s more than any other president before.

Youthful Activist #2: This BLM Rock Springs Resource Management Plan started back in 1997. I wasn’t even born yet. (He looks across the landscaped lawn as angry chanting ensues.) What took everyone so long to realize it would protect these fragile lands?

Julia Stuble: The areas in the proposal that block new leases have low prospects for oil and gas yields. It’s a shame that lawmakers feel they have to use such inflammatory rhetoric.

The scene switches back across the courtyard to the anti-proposal group. 

Wyoming’s Citizen #1: I can’t believe, after this proposal dragged on for nearly 12 years, that it’s finally gonna happen.

Wyoming’s Citizen #2:  Protection of sage grouse habitat, my ass. These lawyers made a bundle while we waited, and waited, and waited. Never knowing if our jobs would vanish.

Wyoming’s Citizen #3: 2,900 jobs lost! And it’s across the board in oil and gas drilling and production.

Local Sheriff: I’m not going to enforce the plan if it does get finalized. I’ll tell you that right now.

RJ Pieper (speaks with confidence, having spent more than a decade in the oil and gas industry): At some point, we have to say, where can we balance industry with making sure we protect the public lands we love to recreate on? It’s a way of life, using our public lands. So I get why everyone is leading with emotion on this. (He sighs deeply.) We’re a very red state. It’s to the point where people believe anything Biden is bad.

A New York Times article provided the source material for this one act play.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1189 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna