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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

The Natural Resources of the Pawnee Grassland

October 12th, 2014 · 3 Comments

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The Pawnee National Grassland has considerable natural resources besides birds and wildlife. In fact I was so concerned about one of these resources that I almost didn’t return there this year.

Returning to a place that we have loved can bring great disappointment as Tom Wolfe wrote in his great novel You Can’t Go Home Again. I ​had ​previously regretted returning to several places and didn’t want my return this year to the grassland to override the ​good ​memories that I had of my 2008 and 2010 trips there.

Fracking specifically was what concerned me. The terms fracking, ​shale, ​horizontal drilling,​ ​oil, and natural gas go together. Fracking creates fractures in rock formation by injecting fluid into cracks to force them further open and extract gas or oil.​ ​Shale is ​source rock formation ​where plankton turned into hydrocarbons. However, over millions of years some oil and gas gradually seeped up from the source rock into sandstone and coarse-grained limestone that until recently provided most of our oil and gas. ​But very recent advances in horizontal drilling ​have now made ​oil and gas wells in shale formations practical.

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​​One of these important shale reservoirs of oil and gas ​is the Niobrara Formation of western Nebraska, southern Wyoming, and northern Colorado, particularly Weld County. This county now has more active wells — more than 18,000 of them — than anywhere else in the United States, according to ​Weld County Commission Chairman Sean Conway.​

​Now “nearly every well drilled in the United States​ is fracked,” wrote Russell Gold​ in his April 2014 book,​ The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World.​ That’s true for Weld County too.​

And the Pawnee National Grassland lies near the center of Weld County. A comment on my 2010 Pawnee National Grassland post by someone I know only as “Charlie C” particularly concerned me.

“I’m glad you took the pictures that you di​d,” he wrote. “​They are a historical document of the past now…No point in going out there anymore…all you are going to see are gas wells and huge multipad wells (on National Land!!!) and an unbelievable amount of truck traffic going in and out of the wells so the roads have been made way worse​…​It​’​s is an absolute disgrace that this has been allowed to happen, it will never be returned to the condition it was in…it has been for intent and purpose been destroyed.​”​

Not so.

“I just came back last night from three wonderful days in the Pawnee Grassland​,” I replied a few days ago.​ ​”​Your message disturbed me, but I went there anyway and am glad for it. Actually, I found the grassland little changed from my trips there in 2008 and 2010. There is more activity and there are more oil we​l​ls in the eastern section of the grassland than in the western section where some of the best birding in the country is. The eastern section is noteworthy only for the Pawnee Buttes, and I didn’t see any oil wells in that immediate area. I did see hundreds of wind turbines there and had to find just the right angle to photograph the buttes without the turbines in the picture. But that has been the case for years.

​”​Without question, the best birding on the grassland is around the Crow Valley Campground. The other outstanding area is the Pawnee National Grassland Birding Tour, a self-guided auto tour near the southern edge of the western section. In three days of constant activity I saw very few oil wells and oil company trucks in the western section. I am so glad that I went back for a wonderful trip and I will write my photo essays about it in the next week or so.​”

Some new wells are still being drilled. As we left the grassland, this one near the main road, Colorado ​State Highway 14, is the only one we saw.

This Well May Soon Be Producing Oil

This Well May Soon Be Producing Oil

Click on the picture above to enlarge

An oil well is like an iceberg: most of it is invisible. I don’t know how big the one pictured below is, but oil and gas wells nowadays are incredibly long. The average depth of a fracked well is about 6,000 feet. The longest in the world goes down 40,502 feet and extends sideways 37,638 feet.

An Active Well in the Grassland​

An Active Well in the Grassland

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​Only once did I see something that I wish didn’t have to happen. When they drill for oil, sometimes they also find natural gas. But where no infrastructure exists to get the gas to market, they flare it off.

​Flaring Natural Gas​

Flaring Natural Gas

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​Oil and natural gas aren’t the only important energy sources found on the grassland. Water and wind are even more important for the people who live there. In this land of little rain — less than 15 inches per year — ​water wells are a must.

Paul Timm, at whose ranch Sharon and I stayed during our visit to the grassland, told us that how he had to replace the well that the original homesteader had dug by hand. But the experts he hired failed to find water where they dug. Finally, a water witch volunteered to help for free. Using his forked stick, he told Paul where to drill. Paul did and found it, and that well is still producing water.

​Windpumps are a type of windmill used for pumping water. The grassland still has many of them.

The Windpump at Crow Valley​

The Windpump at Crow Valley

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This Windpump at Pawnee Buttes Draws Water for Cattle​

This Windpump at Pawnee Buttes Draws Water for Cattle

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This Water Tower Stores Water for Grover in the Center of the Grassland​​

This Water Tower Stores Water for Grover in the Center of the Grassland

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​On the grassland, wind is also used as a source of energy. The strongest winds there are chinooks that can roar in from the west at 50 to 100 mph during the fall and winter. But A​pril may be the cruelest month in the grassland. The average windspeed ​then ​is the highest, 10.4 mph.​

​While early settlers of the plains bemoaned the wind, we have now begun to harness it. ​​Just 8 miles east of Grover are the 397 wind turbines of Cedar Creek Wind Farm.​ Some of these turbines are 411 feet tall and are visible miles away.

​I Count 10 Turbines in this Picture

I Count 10 Turbines in this Picture

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Here Are at Least 42 Turbines and a Power Transmission Line

Here Are at Least 42 Turbines and a Power Transmission Line

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​A 1988 book by Ruth Carol Cushman and Stephen Jones, The Shortgrass Prairie, which is about areas like the Pawnee National Grassland, called it ​“a region of barren beauty​.​”​ It’s still beautiful, but not quite so barren now.​


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Posted in: Photography

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Shane Miller // Aug 2, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    This is no longer the case. Having just been through the grasslands and visited the Pawnee buttes, I am saddened to say that the land is being raped. There is nowhere to look and not see turbines, fracking wells, flames burning off natural gas, and the truck traffic… We have failed to protect this valuable natural habitat and it no longer brings the feelings of peace once enjoyed. We even witnessed dead birds in many of the cattle water basins. No wildlife to speak of. Just sad.

  • 2 Kate // Oct 14, 2015 at 9:27 am

    My now deceased aunt took me there twice in the 90’s when I was a teen and the beauty had a huge impact on my life. I was planning on taking a trip out there soon, until I google imaged the buttes… It was like a knife in my heart. Ruined is the right word.

  • 3 David Mendosa // Oct 14, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Thank you, Kate. Fortunately, fracking has essentially stopped dead in this country because the Saudis are keeping the price of oil so low. May it ever be so.