Bearing Witness

Photo by Norm Shrewsbury Dome Plateau

“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.” John Sawhill

FOR MANY AMERICANS, the Bush-Cheney Energy Plan is an abstraction at best, and at worst, a secret. For those of us living in the redrock desert of southern Utah, it is an earth-shaking reality as seismic explorations are underway in sensitive wildlands adjacent to Arches National Park and Canyonlands.

In a memorandum sent by the Bureau of Land Management to field offices on January 4, 2002, it stated, “Utah needs to ensure that existing staff understands that when an oil and gas lease parcel or when an application for permission to drill comes in the door, that this work is their No. 1 priority.”

And in Representative Waxman’s report to Congress, “How the White House Energy Plan Benefitted Enron” Kenneth Lay is quoted as saying, “I think certainly we’ve got to get access to more land on which to drill for natural gas.”

Access appears to be no problem. Count some of our nation’s most pristine wildlands among those slated for development. Oil and gas leases have been purchased adjacent to Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and in the case of Dead Horse State Park, the seismic explorations of last fall were a precursor to the oil drilling now planned for the rim overlooking the Colorado River.

I witnessed the current administration’s priority to drill for oil on the wildlands that border Arches National Park on the eve of President’s Day.

PERCHED ON TOP OF SANDSTONE CLIFFS above the Colorado River, we surveyed the territory with a map of the Dome Plateau stretched across our laps. We noted the land now leased to Eclipse Exploration, 23,000 acres covering the 36 square miles in front of us.This pristine country of Entrada sandstone formations, pinyon and juniper forests, and the fragile alkaline desert is one of the proposed preserves in America’s Redrock Wilderness Bill, HR 1613, now before Congress with significant support.

Six parallel seismic lines are also drawn on the map. Lines two, four, and six are the physical corridors where four 50,000-pound trucks will crawl cross-country, supposedly single file, with a leeway of 50 feet on either side of the seismic lines, their steel plates tamping the desert for clues as to where oil may be found.

Western Geco is the company contracted by Eclipse Exploration from Denver, Colorado, to do this preliminary work.

We folded the map and set out to find these “thumper trucks” in the desert.

Our task was simplified by a helicopter flying overhead with a long cable carrying what appeared to be an enormous doughnut. It was a tire. We watched where the helicopter released the cable. Within minutes, we found ourselves at a white truck known as “the smart box” where all the seismic information is recorded and compiled. Beyond that, we saw one of the four trucks tilted on its side, stuck, lodged precariously in the steep banks of the wash. It’s rear left tire, as tall as the man staring at it, was not only flat but torn off its axle by an unseen boulder.

The three other thumper trucks were proceeding about a half a mile ahead. We caught up to them on foot and this is what we saw: pulverized earth; a fifteen foot swath of beaten down and broken junipers, blackbrush, rabbitbrush, squawbush and cliffrose. The entrance to a badger’s den had collapsed. The delicate desert crust that holds the red sand in place from wind and erosion, known as cryptobiotic soil, was obliterated. In its wake, a newly crushed road.

Dr. Jayne Belnap, a United States Geological Survey expert on soil damage wrote the Bureau of Land Management concerning the fragility of desert crusts, warning it could take up to 250 years for the dry soil to recover from the damage incurred by heavy equipment.

TO WATCH THE GNAWING AND CLAWING gestures of these machines creep across the desert responding only to fluorescent pink ribbons that mark their path, is to observe gigantic metal insects complete with a head, thorax, and abdomen that articulates right and left, as they attempt to balance themselves across the rugged topography. The fumes from the hydraulic fluid stung our eyes as the shrill high pitched screams generated from the engines threatened to blow-out our eardrums. At the same time, low, bowel-twisting groans build to a crescendo from the belly of the machine.

The men in the three trucks read newspapers as the operation proceeds, computerized and routine. They stop at the designated post, put on their brakes; lower the steel plate on the desert; clamp tight; apply some 64,000 pounds of pressure against the sand like a lethal stethoscope to cold skin, then send a jolt of seismic waves below to record density. The ground goes into a seizure. This is repeated eleven times. The steel plate lifts. The once supple red sand has turned to concrete. The brake is released and with a gear shift, the convoy moves forward until the next post appears, leaving behind a trail of shattered rock.

Each seismic test takes about five minutes. During this storm of destruction, sand flew and smoke obscures the horizon where Skyline Arch and Sand Dune Arch the Windows section of Arches National Park stand. We are only four miles from Delicate Arch, the redrock icon chosen to represent the majesty and beauty of the 2002 Winter Olympics, where only weeks ago, a Ute Elder uttered prayers beneath the Arch and passed the Olympic torch to his granddaughter in the name of good will and peace.

Today that view is altered.

The trucks move forward, scraping the slickrock with the chains wrapped around their tires. They are heading straight for a spring, a riparian zone within the Cisco desert where hundred year old cottonwood trees provide a rare canopy of shade alongside a creek. We run ahead of the trucks not believing they will force a road into this fragile oasis, but they do, gunning the gas, lowering their gears, breaking down stands of squawbush and willows, and ripping right on through the cottonwood shoots. As branches break and roots are pulverized, a shot of sweetness fills the air, the crushed leaves of sage, juniper, and squawbush, create a ritualized fragrance around their own death and overtake the fumes of gasoline. It is the last gasp of these hearty, aromatic plants as they are rolled over. There is nothing we can do but watch and witness the Bush-Cheney Energy Plan in action. Call it another form of terrorism played out in the theater of our public lands.

A MANAGER FROM THE BUREAU of Land Management suddenly appears. I feel a flash of relief. He is here to do his job, to stop this wholesale sacrifice of wild country in this bald attempt to find one minute of oil for this nation in its most treasured landscapes. He is perturbed, but not by the trucks plowing through the cottonwood wash. He is here to monitor us. A call was made to the agency that we might be harassing the operation, putting the project at risk.

We are the public walking on public lands.

We asked the manager as politely as possible if he had the jurisdiction to redirect these trucks from this riverbed to an already established seismic road to the south where this kind of abuse would not occur.
“We’ve got the discretion to make them do that,” he said. “But, in the end, it’s all a trade-off, we’ve chosen to just accept the project as they give it to us.” He pauses. “You can see the pink ribbons on the trees, they’ve had it all staked out since September.”

Terry Tempest Williams is currently the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Orion Magazine, and numerous anthologies worldwide as a crucial voice for ecological consciousness and social change. She has also published several books, including Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Refuge, and Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Her most recent book, When Women Were Birds, was published in Spring 2012 by Macmillan.