Frackin’ on heaven’s door

A piece I wrote for High Country News, about coming to terms with the loss of a beloved prairie landscape to oil and gas development.

How many people over the centuries have loved the Pawnee Buttes, only to see them ravaged?

April 16, 2018

On a blustery day last winter, I dodged a parade of semi trucks to pay my final respects to the Pawnee Buttes.

The Buttes are a pair of sandstone-and-clay ramparts that rise out of the vast, choppy sea of shortgrass prairie in northeastern Colorado’s Pawnee National Grassland. I fell in love with them back in the early 2000s, when the most recent Front Range housing boom was still in its early stages. I had a brand-new driver’s license, and heading out to explore the still-wild landscape of the Buttes felt like entering Outer Mongolia.

Spring days were the best: Bumblebees wrestled lazily with wildflower blossoms, and lark buntings floated on a light breeze. Summer brought the great thunderheads, explosive with fury, ripped open by the stratosphere. Lizards entwined themselves in the sagebrush, and smug prairie rattlers lay on the soft white sand. The Buttes loomed over the plains, immense as a double Uluru, the great red rock of the Australian outback.

I can’t count how many times I pitched my tent along a nearby escarpment, or woke to a Pawnee sunrise, an arpeggio of blue to pink to orange. I can’t count how many miles I hiked, beers I drank, cans I shot at. I remember lying on my back, watching sparks flit skyward to join the constellations, a friend’s gentle guitar chords fading away with them. Tracking a racing cumulonimbus as it roiled with lightning. Grinning at nobody as my girlfriend and I snuggled closer under a midnight moonbow.

In the spring of 2015, I made another visit, only to discover that the Buttes had been sacrificed, their eternal grandeur swapped for the oil and gas beneath them. Methane flares burned at their bases. Tank farms and evaporation ponds littered the prairie. The empty roads I once flew along had become muddy ruts clogged with oilfield traffic.

The Buttes were no longer secret gems adored by a handful of birdwatchers and me; they had become an industrial worksite. That year, the Bureau of Land Management, which has the final say over oil and gas activity on Forest Service lands, including Pawnee National Grassland, held a few more rounds of leasing auctions. The lease sales were met by citizen protests, which were swiftly brushed aside, and an additional hundred thousand acres were leased for drilling.

How many people over the centuries have loved the Pawnee Buttes, only to see them ravaged? I wonder. After all, the landscape is named for its former inhabitants, Indigenous people decimated by genocide only a few generations ago. Their sorrow must have been incalculable.

The cowboys who followed them surely ached inside as homesteaders unrolled barbed wire. Not long after, God punished the homesteaders’ hubris by devouring their topsoil and leaving them adrift in a wasteland of dust.

It was this seeming wasteland I fell in love with, a land that had frustrated so many enterprises that it was left to recover until someone developed another way to extract commodities from it. I was blessed to enjoy the waning years of this interlude — though of course my own access to the Buttes, my roaring old pickup, was only possible thanks to the defilement of someone else’s desert.

On my recent visit, I watched the sun set over the grasslands, the evening redness in the west backlighting a bank of pump jacks, bowing to kiss the prairie. I came across a shard of a bottle I shot more than a decade ago. I have left my own filth here.

Down the road, I pulled into the Pawnee Station Café. In the old days, the place was always dead, just me and a bored waitress. This time, oil company drivers shuffled in and out, buying Gatorades and cigarettes. The café has an expanded dining room and bar now. Coffee has doubled in price, from a quarter a cup to 50 cents. The cash register didn’t stop ringing.

Over my table was a picture of the Buttes in springtime, the prairie green with life. You couldn’t take that picture today — the background would be full of derricks, tanks and trucks.

Someday, the wells will run dry. Depending on what remains of our government by that time, the pump jacks and tank farms may be removed, or left to rust in place. If they remain, they will join the arrowheads and homesteads in the immense reliquary of the Great Plains.