Evanston is a small railroad town nestled in rolling, sagebrush hills. To the south sparkle the snowcapped Uinta Mountains. The Bear River meanders through town and lends a special lushness to the area.
What is special about Evanston, however, is not immediately visible. Thousands of feet below ground is a tortured geologic structure called the Overthrust Belt. It is in this formation that in just the fast few years the biggest oil and natural gas discovery in the continental United States has been made.
"It is definitely a giant field," explains Martin Zimmerman of Amoco, one of the oil companies active in the area. Amoco has estimated the size of the "discovered resource" in this area as equivalent to one-tenth that of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. However, oil men caution that years of drilling and analysis will be required before the exact size of the reservoirs here are determined.
While exploratory wells have been drilled for many years in the area, the complex geology of the Overthrust Belt defeated the oil men until more sophisticated seismic techniques were developed and the increasing price of petroleum intensified the search for new fields. Some 500 dry wells were drilled in the Evanston area before the first discovery was made.
Now, however, the oil company activity in this area is intense. Because the Overthrust Belt, which was formed at the same time as the Rocky Mountains, stretches from Alaska to Mexico, the discoveries here have important implications for a number of Western states.
Environmentalists are worried because oil men, intent on exploring every inch of the Pverthrust, are active in proposed wilderness areas such as the Gros Ventres in Wyoming, and the west slope of the Teton Mountains. And in wilderness reviews by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management the mere presence of this extensive geologic structure has persuaded federal bureaucrats to designate such areas as "future study" rather tahn "wilderness."
Such concerns are a world apart from Evanston, however. Although the resultant economic boom has created a number of anxieties, particularly among older residents here, there is no serious opposition. "Of every 100 comments I hear, perhaps two are negative," says Steve Snyder, the city administrator.
The reason is simple. Evanston has been a town on the verge of extinction for some time now. It once had a busy railroad repair yard, but then this was moved to Green River, Wyo., and Ogden, Utah.
"When I graduated from high school, there were only jobs for four of the 90 graduates," recalls Jack Sather, who runs one of the town's jewelry stores. "Now about 50 of them have moved back," he explains.
Only a few years ago, the community was looking forward to the opening of a nearby coal mine as its economic salvation. Now, however, they would just as soon it was delayed. The impacts of the oil development have come rapidly.
Last year the town's population of 5,000 grew gy over one-third to 7,000 and is expected to double again in three to five years, Mr. Snyder says.
As a result, the community is experiencing a number of the adverse side effects of rapid growth. Traffic has increased rapidly and congestion is compounded by by the railroad line that cuts the town in half with only one underpass. Housing for newcomers is nonexistent or extremely expensive; many residents are living in motels or camping along the rig roads in trailers or tents. Restaurants are mobbed during mealtimes. There has been an increase in the number of bar fights.
Yet there are a number of important differences between Evanston and the stereotypic Western boom town. Although bustling with activity, Evanston is not a "wide open town."
"Perhaps we have even gone a littel overboard in the other direction, because we are aware of the bad reputation that cities like Rock Springs have gotten," Mr. Snyder says.
The city has been vigorously attempting to deal with its problems. On general, the major difficulty of rapid growth is due to the need to provide improved facilities and services before the community's revenues increase.
Evanston has garnered state and federal grants totaling more than $2 million for expanding water and sewer systems, improving roads, expanding the airport, and building housing for the elderly. Some of this money has come from Wyoming's coal-severance and mineral taxes.
Six wells are located in the city and, in the first three months, paid royalties to city landowners of between $100 to $150. But most of the drilling is on county land and the city does not benefit directly. In a number of similar cases, county commissioners have refused to help impacted cities. The county here, however, is working closely with the town on highway improvement and similar projects.
Also, Amoco and Chevron oil companies have been unexpectedly generous. Together they have given the city $1 million for law enforcement, schools, and related purposes.
"The oil companies have been good citizens. Some of their employees have made a real contribution to the town," says Melvin Baldwin, editor of the Uinta County Herald.
In addition Amoco, Chevron, and Champlin -- the oil companies most active in the area -- have just formed a group called the Overthrust Industrial Association.
The purpose of this group, says Chuck McLean of the Denver Research Group, which is setting it up, is to help communities like Evanston cope with the impact of oil development.
"We have not yet seen a boom town handled in exactly the right way," Mr. McLean says. "We hope to come up with a formula which can be implemented to make this happen," he explains.
Further aid to Evanston may result as well from an informal group set up recently by the governors of Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho for towns in the Overthrust Belt.