The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter



Wyoming is a rectangle of longitude and latitude draped over high plains and Rockies, capturing within its cartographic net more land than anything else. It’s the least populated state in the USAand that includes even tiny Rhode Island and the great big empty state of Alaska. Wind rakes its bare plains, and snow piles in deep drifts in the furrows and mountains. Ranching used to be the main thing, but Wyoming is now one of the nation’s principal energy states, oil, gas, uranium, and coala lot of coal. Tourism is the second largest industry, but people aren’t looking for mines or gas wells, they are going to the National Parks and ski resorts in the northwestern corner of the state. For most people, Wyoming is a big empty box. But somewhere has to be the emptiest state in the lower 48, and this is as good a place as any.

4767Forever west, at least if you are headed that way. CLUI photoTravel, Recreation, and the Space Between
From pioneer trails to railways to the interstate to the jet set, most of Wyoming is land traveled through. Its most famous natural landmarks and popular destinations are on either side, while in the middle is the space between.

At the northeast corner of the state is Devils Tower, a dramatic igneous intrusion, or volcanic plug. It was the first official National Monument in the USA, declared to be such by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Devils Tower is a cultural monument too, with tremendous significance to local natives, and has tremendous cultural significance for others too, as this was the location for the space alien landing site in the 1977 Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Across the state, in the northwest corner, like the other monumental book-end, is Yellowstone, the nation’s first National Park. Yellowstone covers nearly 4,000 square miles and is full of geothermal vents, pools, and scenic vistas. It may indeed have been the most beautiful and surprising natural place in America, before it was tamed. The lodge at Old Faithful is the most dramatic and grand of the nearly 2,000 buildings in the park, which is not much of a wilderness anymore. The park sees around two million visitors a year, and employs up to 3,700 people at peak times in the summer. There are 310 miles of paved roads in the park, and nine separate museums and visitor centers. Despite all this, though, the southeast corner of Yellowstone is among the most remote places in the continental 48 states, meaning furthest from a settlement or road. This is Wyoming, after all.

Pretty close to the middle of the state, between here, and there, is a famous landmark on the Oregon Trail, known as Devil’s Gate, a steep natural cut in a hill made by the Sweetwater River. Though it is public property (BLM), access to it is through the old Tom Sun Ranch, which is owned by the Mormon church, and managed as the Mormon Handcart Historic Site, part of a national network of historic Mormon locations and pilgrimage sites maintained and operated for its membership. This makes for interesting and abrupt jurisdictional appropriations and historic interpretations, expressed primarily through signage.

4768The Ames Pyramid, another devilish tower. CLUI photoIn the southeast corner of the state, commemorating the railroad era, is the Ames Pyramid, a sixty foot tall stone block monolith, with no shortage of signage either. It was constructed in 1882 to commemorate Union Pacific railroad businessmen/politicians/brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames, as well as to restore the reputation of Union Pacific, which was tarnished when the Ames brothers were found to have been involved in several financial scandals related to the building of the railroad almost a decade prior. The tracks that ran by the monument (built at what was once the highest elevation on the transcontinental railroad) were later relocated to the south, leaving this monument, designed by the well-known Boston architect H. H. Richardson, standing alone.

4769Little America, not just for the little ones. CLUI photoIn the southwest corner of the state is a monument of car travel, Little America, known to many for its barrage of billboards along Interstate 80. This gas station/motel/restaurant stop was the first Little America location, built in 1952, when it was US Route 30 that went through here. The creation myth of the place, as described by its founder, the developer Robert Holding, is that he, as a young rancher herding sheep in the area, got stuck overnight in a blizzard, 40 degrees below zero. He survived the night, and later imagined building a refuge here, in the remote treeless plains of southeastern Wyoming, for any travelers passing through. Since he owned the land, he did, and named it after Admiral Byrd’s remote snowbound Antarctic base, Little America. Holden grew his collection of real estate and hotels, including the Little America brand, ski resorts, and the Sinclair Oil Company, into an empire that made him a billionaire a couple times over. For a while this Little America Travel Center was also known as the nation’s largest gas station, with 55 pumpsSinclair branded, of course.

A new Wyoming highway landmark, the Southwest Wyoming Welcome Center opened recently on Interstate 25, the road between Denver and Cheyenne. Inside are elaborate displays that explore the essence of contemporary Wyoming, including dioramas about Wyoming’s assets, like prisons, ski resorts, wildlife, and mining. At the apogee of the interior interpretive trail is a canted plaque that describes the industrial park under development around the Welcome Center, and an overlook points out the Schlumberger fracking services center across the highway. The panel also acknowledges Neil McMurry, who developed gas fields and industrial parks throughout the state, including this one, and who generously provided the land for this Welcome Center, which thanks him for his generosity.

Like X and Y axes, Interstate 25 runs north/south in the eastern side of the state, while Interstate 80 runs east/west across the southern part. Interstate 80, of course, is the closest thing to a national, continental Main Street connecting the coasts, and a stretch of interstate in southeastern Wyoming, between Rawlins and Cheyenne, might be the worst part of the whole trip between New York and San Francisco. Near the continental divide, in treeless Wyoming, it is notorious for ice and blowing snow, where road accidents and closures are common in the winter. According to the Wyoming Department of Transportation, the toughest areas to keep clear are the 50 mile stretch between Walcott Junction and Dutton Creek Road, and possibly the worst of the worst part of that is Foote Creek Curve, around mile marker 271, west of Arlington.

4770Layers of snow fencing along the “Snow-Chi-Minh Trail” stretch of Interstate 80. CLUI photoBut its a lot better than it used to be, due to one of the most ubiquitous landscape features of Wyoming, the snow fence. These porous rows of tall wooden fence, rolling across the hills, are not made to block the snow, but to cut the wind, causing wind-borne snow to drop rather than to accumulate in places where it may pile on roads or cause white-out conditions or stream across the road surface forming a persistent layer of ice. Though they date back to the railroad times, it is because of  modern highway travel that they spread all over the state.

While the Wyoming Department of Transportation did not invent snow fences, they understand their value as well as anyone. Studies in the 1970s along a 45 mile stretch of Interstate through this region, known at the time as the “Snow Chi Minh Trail,” indicated that snow fencing can save tremendously in plowing costs, as well as save lives by significantly reducing accidents. Now snow fencing is nearly continuous and even multilayered along this I-80 corridor. While this is especially good for locals and truckers, it makes little difference to many of the visitors to Wyoming, who come to enjoy the snow at the ski resorts on the western edge of the state. They simply fly in.

Though remote and serving a small town, the Jackson Hole Airport is the busiest airport in Wyoming, due largely to the ski hills, and the number of private jets coming and going. It serves the resorts and recreational homes of one of the most affluent and scenic regions in the nation, at the base of the Grand Teton Mountains. Within the valley around Jackson Hole are homes belonging to many celebrities and Forbes-listers, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, billionaire John Mars, Walmart heiress Christy Walton, and the actor Harrison Ford. Famously elite finance and media mogul retreats are held at lodges in the region, where fine fishing and hunting can be had too.

One of the most famous celebrity homes in the state is the T E Ranch, which was the 8,000-acre ranch owned and operated by Buffalo Bill Cody. It is in the northwest part of the state, not too far from Cody, the town named after him. Buffalo Bill is such an iconic figure in western lore that many forget that he was an actual person. He started out as the real thing, a Pony Express rider, a scout, bison hunter, and Indian fighter. People started writing about him, and then, as the west became more settled, he became a showman of the Old West myth, taking an elaborate act on the road, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, touring nationally, and then internationally. He settled in Cody in 1895 as his fame was peaking. He died in 1917, at his sister’s house in Denver. The T E ranch has been sold several times since his death, and has been owned by a succession of Coca-Cola executives.

This was not the only property owned by Buffalo Bill. He had a few hundred acres at Irma Lake, 20 miles south of Cody, built structures there, and used it as a hunting retreat, naming the lake after one of his daughters. His modest hunting cabin is still there, along with a 15,000 square foot ranch house and several other recently added buildings. The property is remote, at the end of a seven mile private road, and has been owned since 2009 by another famous Bill—Bill Gates, the richest person in the world.

4771Cheyenne’s history, served up on an interpretive platter. CLUI photoCheyenne: Wyoming’s Marginal Epicenter
Cheyenne, in the southeast corner of the state, is the largest community in Wyoming, with around 60,000 people. Casper, closer to the historic oil and gas industry in the middle of the state, is not far behind, with 56,000 people. Laramie, west of Cheyenne, is the only other community in the state with more than 30,000 people, and is nearly entirely supported by the state university there.

Cheyenne, the state capital, is perhaps the most economically diverse place in the state, and where you find the widest variety of land uses. It is also just an hour and half from Denver, commuting distance to and from the sprawl of the Front Range, which Cheyenne is sometimes even considered part of.

Like lots of places, Cheyenne is trying to brand itself as a high tech center, and a logistical crossroads for big box distribution centers. This is actually happening at one location, west of town, where a new federal computing center opened in 2012. Called the Wyoming Supercomputing Center, it was built to analyze and model complex environmental phenomenology as part of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, based in Boulder, Colorado. It also exists to stimulate high tech business and infrastructure at this new industrial park. Two commercial datacenters opened next door, one of which is Microsoft’s.

Next to that is a major Walmart distribution center, with a large refrigerated warehouse, coupled with a CR English refrigerated trucking logistics center. Cheyenne is indeed a hub, on the fringe.

Also in town is a major satellite uplink and broadcast facility for Echostar, one of the nation’s largest satellite communication companies. The facility was built in 1994, for the Dish Network TV system, now part of the Hughes dish system, and it serves other commercial and government customers as well. The company expanded in 2011 by building a data center at the site, and Green House Data has since built a commercial data center next to that.

4772Dyno Nobel Cheyenne: providing blasting power to wrest Wyoming’s coal from the ground. CLUI photoMostly, though, Cheyenne’s economy is based on government bureaucracymilitary, federal, state, and local, as well as schools and hospitals. One exception is an explosives facility on the southwest fringe of town, which employs around 200 people. Dyno Nobel manufactures explosives here to serve coal mining in Wyoming, and other mining and quarrying operations around the west. The company is a major supplier of explosive services and technology for industry all over the world, but this is one of only two plants it operates in the western United States (it has a few more in the eastern US). This plant makes ammonium nitrate explosives, as well as emulsions. The company is the industrial legacy of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and the Nobel Prize.

The largest single employer in the state though, besides the University in Laramie, is a military base in Cheyenne, Warren Air Force Base. An Air Force base with no runway, Warren is one of three bases in the USA that manage the nation’s fleet of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As with the other two (North Dakota’s Minot AFB, and Montana’s Malmstrom AFB) Warren AFB is responsible for 150 Minuteman missiles, in 150 unmanned silos, controlled by fifteen underground manned launch control centers. 19 of the missiles under Warren’s care are in southeastern Wyoming, and the rest are in adjacent Nebraska and Colorado.

Warren AFB was the first operational ICBM base, dating back to the deployment of the Atlas missile program in 1958. Though they were taken out of service in just a few years, replaced by more modern systems, the former Atlas launch sites around southeastern Wyoming remain as monolithic concrete ruins.

One of them, Atlas Missile Base 564-A/B, at a remote site a few miles north of Warren, is unique. It was the second operational intercontinental ballistic missile base in the country, and the first launch facility built outside of Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s coast. It housed the first generation of ICBMs, known as the Atlas D. 15 Atlas D missiles were installed at four locations in Wyoming (in addition to six at Vandenberg, and nine at Offutt AFB in Nebraska). This site was unusual also as it was a double location, with six ICBMs, instead of the usual three. Like the other sites, this one remains as an abandoned relic, with contamination in the ground that is still being assessed. The facilities here were above ground, unlike some later versions of ICBMs that had underground silos and launch control buildings.

4773The main entrance to Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, the administrative, training, and support base for clusters of ICBMs located in the region, from 1958 to today. CLUI photoWyoming was first and last with our nuclear deterrent in other ways too. The Peacekeeper missile, also known as the MX missile, was the most recent form of ICBM to be produced and deployed by the USA. 50 silos were outfitted, converted from older Minuteman III silos, all located in southeastern Wyoming, northeast of Cheyenne. Developed over the latter part of the Cold War, the Peacekeeper wasn’t operational until 1986, and was soon the subject of treaty negotiations, cutting short its full deployment. Deactivation started in 2003 and lasted until September 2005, when the last missile was removed from Silo P-3. The silos are in the process of being destroyed and filled with dirt, after which they will be sold at auction. The rockets are being reused to launch satellites, and their warheads were transferred to the Minuteman III program, the only remaining active land-based ICBM system in the USA.

50 miles from Cheyenne, north of the Minuteman missile field, is Camp Guernsey, an 80,000-acre military training site. It is operated by the National Guard, which employs more than 1,000 full-time people in the state, and is also used by other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and security and defense contractors. Most of the action occurs at the North Training Area, which can accommodate live fire, maneuvers, airdrops, convoy training, and air-ground training using helicopters and transport aircraft.

Given the low population density and wide open space in Wyoming, it is perhaps surprising that there are not more military training bases here, or at least a bombing range or two. But maybe the ICBMs were considered enough.

As further testament to Wyoming’s remoteness, especially in the northern parts of the state, the federal government located one of its ten Japanese-American interment camps here, north of Cody, during World War II. Like the other relocation centers, the Heart Mountain Internment Camp had around 650 buildings, with 450 barracks holding as many as 10,000 people in a fenced compound covering just over a square mile of land. Several of the original structures have been preserved, and an interpretive center opened in 2011. The locations of these ten facilities, housing a total of 100,000 innocent people during the war, in places like Delta, Utah; Independence and Tule Lake, California; Poston and Gila River, Arizona, are in a sense a map of especially empty parts of the West, in more ways than one.

Wyoming:  Bounty of the Ground
Though its surface can appear unadorned, Wyoming’s underground is chock full of valuable dirt. In many places the landscape seems to have been turned over, dug up, then patted back down
and indeed this is often the case. And not just from coal and uranium.

Wyoming is the primary producer of bentonite in the USA, furnishing as much as 80% of the nation’s output in recent years. Bentonite is a soapy clay that is used in all kinds of industries, primarily for its abilities to absorb liquids. It is a major ingredient in cat litter too. It is also a critical component in drilling mud for the oil and gas industry. Wyoming’s bentonite mines are a network of small shallow surface pit operations that are scattered, but widespread in three regions in the north and northeast parts of the state. There are currently around ten bentonite operations in the state, the largest of which is probably the BPM plant in Colony, in the extreme northeast corner of the state. It is operated by Bentonite Performance Materials, which is a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Wyoming is also the primary source of a mineral known as trona, a form of soda ash, which is used in glass making, detergents, metals, paper, and more. Baking soda is mostly trona. Though there is a substantial operation in the California town of Trona, up to 90% of the material produced in the USA comes from four large underground mining operations and processing facilities in the southwestern corner of Wyoming. More than 3,000 people work here, extracting up to 19 million tons of the material annually. Workers extract the soft rock with tunnel boring machines, working the material left in a layer from an ancient sea bed, at levels now 800 to 2,200 feet underground.

4774FMC, the largest trona mine in the nation, all underground. CLUI photoThe FMC Green River Trona Mine is the largest of the four trona mines in the region, and likely the largest in the world. It has 2,000 miles of tunnels, most of which are 14 feet wide and 8 feet tall. The operation extracts as much as 900 tons an hour. FMC Trona started out as a joining of two separate operations, Westvaco Chemical, and Food Machinery and Chemical Co (FMC) in 1948. It was purchased by Tronox in 2015, and is the only one of the four trona operations owned by a domestic company.

The OCI Chemical Trona Mine is located a few miles northeast of FMC, and is the smallest in output. Even so, it is a large operation, employing 430 people and extracting 2.7 million tons annually. For years it was owned by OCI Enterprises Inc., a South Korean company. It is now owned by the Ciner Group of Istanbul, Turkey, which purchased it for $429 million.

General Chemical has operated a trona mine for several decades, a few miles south of the FMC operation, employing around 500 people. General Chemical was bought by the Indian industrial conglomerate Tata in 2008. The fourth in the belt of trona operations is the Solvay Trona Mine, located south of Interstate 80, at the end of Tenneco Road. The mine’s owner, Solvay, is a French and Belgian chemical conglomerate.

East of the trona mines, near the town of Rock Springs, is another large mineral processing facility, the Simplot Rock Springs Phosphates Plant. This large fertilizer plant produces dry fertilizer for agricultural use. It is supplied by a phosphate mine near Vernal, Utah, which delivers the ore through a 96-mile long slurry pipeline buried in the ground. The plant also uses molten sulfur, which is supplied by pipeline too, from the region’s oil and gas activity. The plant is expanding, with the addition of a $300 million ammonia plant that makes the product from natural gas, locally produced, also delivered by pipeline. Fertilizer made here is shipped to farmlands of the midwest.

The plant’s owner, Simplot, is one of the nation’s largest privately-held companies, an agribusiness started in Idaho by J.R. Simplot. The company is known as the inventor of the frozen french fry. Simplot operates another major phosphate plant in Pocatello, and in California’s Central Valley. Fertilizer plants can explode violently, which is one reason this remote area is favored by the company. The other is the regional production and conveyance systems for minerals and gas.

4775The Sinclair Refinery in Sinclair, Wyoming. CLUI photoOil and Gas: Old and New
Wyoming was a major source for oil and gas historically, and still is, though to a lesser degree, as domestic plays like Bakken, Marcellus, and the broad sweep of domestic fossil fuel production expanded across the country.

Historically, it was the Salt Creek Oil Field region that boosted the state into a major oil provider in the early 1900s. The old oil patch around there is littered with remains from the era.

A large portion of the field was set aside by the federal government to be used only in the event of a national crisis or shortage, called naval reserves, as they were established initially as fuel supplies for naval ships. This reserve site was made famous by the Teapot Dome scandal in 1922, when commercial pumping was allowed from the federal oil field here, and from ones in California, by a Secretary of the Interior who had been bribed by the oil companies that did so. The scandal involved Harry Sinclair, the founder of Wyoming’s Sinclair Oil, who served six months in prison for his role, then moved back into his Manhattan mansion.

Years later the field was finally opened up to commercial use, and is now actively being pumped and undergoing environmental restoration. When it was owned by the Department of Energy and operated by Flour Daniel Inc., the field produced over 22 million barrels of oil, generating more than $550 million for the government. It was finally sold in 2015 to the Stranded Oil Company of New York for $45 million. A commercial oil field operations training area is on the site as well.

Sinclair Oil, a distinctive brand, with (suitably) a dinosaur on its logo, is known as Wyoming’s oil and gasoline company. It has around 2,700 gas stations in the USA, though most of its gas is produced by other companies, like ARCO. There are two Sinclair refineries still operating in the state, one near Casper, and another in Sinclair, a small company town in southern Wyoming named after the company. This refinery has a capacity of 85,000 barrels per day, a medium-small one by national standards, but the largest of the four major refineries still operating in the state.

There used to be three refineries in Casper, a region that was once the heart of Wyoming’s oil production. One of them, owned by Texaco, closed in 1982. Clean-up and redevelopment of the site has been slow. The Sierra Club and others have claimed that arsenic, benzene, and ammonia (just to name a few of the dangerous substances cited) were buried in unlined pits next to the refinery, and that millions of pounds of contaminants were released into the river and groundwater every year that the plant was in operation.

4776The Holly/Frontier refinery in Cheyenne. CLUI photoA refinery in Cheyenne has the capacity of processing around 50,000 barrels per day, which makes it the second largest in the state. It is operated by the Holly/Frontier Corporation, and primarily produces gasoline for local markets. Little America operates a 25,000 barrel per day refinery in Evansville, and Black Elk Refining operates a 14,000 barrel per day refinery in Newcastle. Additionally there is a 3,800 barrel per day refinery in Douglas, and a 3,000 barrel per day refinery in Evanston. These are tiny compared to the 500,000 barrels per day produced by the nation’s largest refineries. But Wyoming’s oil is famously independent, and small scale.  

In point of fact, the state is the home of the C and H Refinery, in the eastern Wyoming town of Lusk, which was recently listed in the Guinness Book as the world’s smallest functioning oil refinery. It uses the old thermal distilling methods, not the catalytic cracking of modern refineries, and dates back to the early 1900s. C and H was restored to working condition by a private individual, Zahir Khalid, who bought it in 1998, for historic more than economic reasons. Its capacity is just a few barrels per day.

4777The closed Gift Tank lurking in the bushes at the Accidental Oil Well Site. CLUI photoNorth of Lusk, on the edge of the Black Hills, is another curious Wyoming oil location, the Accidental Oil Well. The site was operated as a tourist attraction starting in 1970. The primary draw was a hand dug 24 foot deep oil well, an excavated underground cavity that visitors could walk into through a lighted tunnel, and admire from a 58 foot long viewing gallery. Topside was a pump with a crank so people could pump oil out by hand. There was also old oilfield equipment on display, and a 10,000 barrel metal oil tank, which was turned into a gift shop called the Gift Tank, with paneled walls and chandeliers. A unique attempt at oil tourism, the facility closed some years ago, and is abandoned.

Gas and oil are often found together, and gas, it seems, is nearly everywhere. But still, certain parts of the country have more than others. In Wyoming, it’s the southwestern part of the state that has the most gas production, in fields like Pinedale and Jonah. The region is peppered with thousands of well sites, with tanks for storage and preliminary gas separation, connected by pipelines, that converge at dozens of processing plants, large and small, from which the gas feeds into larger pipelines that take it to be consumed in industrial plants and cities.

Exxon operates one of the largest gas processing plants in the state, the Shute Creek Gas Plant at the La Barge Gas Field in western Wyoming. As a result of the separation process, helium is also produced, and this plant is one of the major sources for that gas in the US. The facility also has a carbon dioxide capture plant that was called the world’s largest by the company in 2010.

There are more than a hundred sizable gas processing plants in the state, including some large ones around the town of Opal. Opal is a hub for interstate gas pipelines converging on the western end of the state, and following the right of ways like the railway and old Highway 30. Because of this, Opal has become a gas trading hub, and has a new underground gas storage facility. It is a tiny remote town, north of the highway services settlement at Little America, with its battery of gasoline pumps.

4778The Black Thunder Mine, usually ranked as the first or second largest coal mine in the country. CLUI photoThe Powder River Basin: Wyoming’s Kingdom of Coal
Nearly half of the electricity in the USA is generated from coal, and Wyoming produces nearly half of all the coal mined in the USA. This is why Wyoming is considered a leading energy state. Nearly all the coal comes from the Powder River Basin in eastern Wyoming, where eight of the ten largest coal mines in the nation are located. Coal is shipped by rail to power plants all over the country, in more than 30 states.

A few mines in the region compete for the title of largest, based on the volumes of coal they produce, usually more than a hundred million tons per year. The North Antelope Rochelle Mine currently holds the title, selling 118 million tons in 2014, ten percent of the US coal supply. Like the others, this mine nearly doubled in size when it merged with an adjacent one. It employs around 1,300 people. The mine is owned and operated by Peabody Energy, which operates two other large Powder River Basin mines, Caballo (8 million tons per year), and Rawhide (15 million tons per year).

For years the Black Thunder Mine was the world’s largest single coal-mining complex, until it was surpassed by the nearby North Antelope Rochelle mine. It is now the second largest coal mine in the nation. In total, more than 2.2 billion tons of coal have been mined since 1977. Black Thunder is operated by Arch Coal, which bought out ARCO’s Thunder Basin Coal Company in 1998.

The Cordero and Caballo Rojo mines were merged in 1997 to create the third largest coal mine in the United States. Initially operated by Rio Tinto Energy America, the mine was purchased by Cloud Peak Energy in 2010. The operation spans 6,500 acres of Bureau of Land Management land, estimated to contain around 350 million more tons of coal. The extraction rate varies between 30 and 40 million tons per year.

Some of the coal mines in Wyoming were developed to provide coal for local power production, like the Jim Bridger Power Plant in southwest Wyoming. One of the largest coal-fired power plants in the nation, this remote plant was built at its primary coal source, the Jim Bridger Mine. A 2.5 mile long conveyor brings coal to the plant, whose four units produce 2,120 megawatts, much of which goes to power nearby Idaho. It burns up to 9 million tons of coal per year, around a third of which now comes from other mines. Though the mine here was an open pit strip mine for decades, most of the coal comes from underground operations on site now. Water to cool the plant and make steam, has to be piped in from the Green River, more than 50 miles away. The plant is operated by PacifiCorp, and employs around 350 people.

4779The Jim Bridger Power Plant. CLUI photoThe Dave Johnson Power Plant is a coal-fired power plant built in 1958, and expanded with more units, now producing 800 megawatts. It was fueled by an adjacent mine until it was depleted and closed in 2000. The plant receives coal from mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and is operated by PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy, which in turn is owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

The Wyodak complex, located in the Powder River Basin, has three separate plants that produce electricity from coal. One of them, the Wyodak plant, is one of the largest air-cooled power plants in the nation (generating around 350 megawatts). Also on site are the Neil Simpson and Wygen power plants, which together generate another 500 megawatts.  The plants use coal from the Wyodak mine, located on the other side of the interstate. Wyodak was the first major coal mine of the Powder River Basin, opening in the 1920s, making it likely the oldest operating surface coal mine in the US.

4780The closed gate to the post-uranium landscape at the Pathfinder Mine. CLUI photoUranium Mining: Not Gone, Nor Forgotten
Uranium was big in Wyoming, from the 1950s to the 1980s, and its effect on the landscape continues, due to the long process of remedial action and radiological decay. While the domestic market for uranium is severely diminished, with cheaper ore coming from Russia, Canada, and Australia, Wyoming has the largest uranium ore reserves in the nation, so the industry is likely to linger for some time to come.

Jeffery City, northwest of Rawlins, was a sizable community of a few thousand people during the uranium boom times of the 1950s to 1970s, with mills and mines operating north and south of town.  Today there are less than 100 people in town, and the mine sites have been closed or idled. The Sweetwater Uranium Mill, associated with the Green Mountain mines south of Jeffery City, remains on standby. The operation, owned by Kennecott Uranium Company, opened in 1981, but ceased just two years later. This is a conventional mill, meaning it processes ore that is mechanically extracted from a pit or underground mine. There are less than a dozen of this type of mill in close to operating condition in the USA, and usually just one or two that are actively producing uranium. A more common method for collecting uranium today is by flushing water through ore-bearing rock through a series of wells and even old underground mines, and extracting the uranium in a wet extraction process known as in-situ recovery.

The Smith Ranch Highland Mill, northeast of Casper, is this type of plant, and is one of the largest active uranium mining and production operations in the USA. The mill, also referred to as the Central Processing Plant, processes liquid that has been concentrated and collected from wells through the region. The operation started in 1987, and has expanded since then, now comprising several satellite sites, where liquids are delivered to the plant through pipelines and by tanker trucks. Waste material is injected 10,000 feet into the ground. It is operated by Power Resources Inc., a subsidiary of the Canadian uranium company Cameco.

Shirley Basin was one of five or so uranium mining districts in Wyoming, with production in underground and open pit mines beginning in 1960. In 1961, a mine here was the first to develop in-situ leach mining for uranium. Today the mines in the basin are closed, the landscape recontoured, with some tailings and processing facilities bulldozed into cells and capped against erosion. A former community that supported operations is now empty, reduced to slabs and empty swing sets.

The Gas Hills East Disposal Cell, located in a major uranium mining area in central Wyoming, is a former uranium operation that was closed and capped according to federal guidelines, creating a new landmass more than a mile long. Umetco, the uranium mining company that operated the mill at the site from 1960 to 1985, demolished the mill and buried tailings here, along with tailings from another mill at Riverton. Reclamation of the site was mostly completed in 2006, though monitoring continues indefinitely.

The Spook Uranium Disposal Cell, in the Powder River Basin, is another uranium mine closure site, but a bit different than most. The cell was built to contain the wastes from a uranium processing mill that operated here from 1962 to 1965. Instead of making a mound and capping it with coarse-crushed rock to protect the mound from erosion, which is typical, the 315,000 cubic yards of radioactive soil and debris from the mill was placed in the bottom of an adjacent open pit uranium mine, which was then filled with material to the pre-mining surface contour. The visual effects of mining were removed, even if the invisible effects may persist for millennia. ♦