While out hiking last month, in foothills of the Wind River Mountains, where some say you can see 100 miles on a clear day, Judy Walker of Pinedale, Wy., became overwhelmed at what she saw.
"It was this kind of light brown haze a lot like what I see when I'm in Denver that fuzzed up the mountains," she says. "I just felt at that moment this tremendous sense of loss, like someone had bombed my church."
At once primordial and almost overpowering to some, the pristine air quality and mountain views from Pinedale - a town of 1,500 that sits on Highway 191, a key gateway to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks - have long been among the finest in the nation.
But now not only Pinedale's air quality and views are at risk - but so are those in three nearby wilderness areas just east of the town and, to a serious but lesser degree, in the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
That's because there's a plan to add 3,100 new gas wells on nearby public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - a giant gas field dubbed "Jonah" just 30 miles or so south of Pinedale.
It is pitting environmentalists against the government in the age-old argument of development - in this case with profits estimated at already some $4 billion per year from the currently active 6,000 wells - versus preservation of national resources.
For up to 31 days a year, the haze from 3,100 new gas wells in the Jonah field would impair visibility up to seven times the level perceptible to the human eye in the Bridger, Fitzpatrick, and Popo Agie Wilderness Areas, according to an analysis of newly released BLM data by a coalition of environmental groups and local activists fighting the development.
"What this means is that millions of Americans are going to drive through the Upper Green Valley headed for the national parks or wilderness areas - and their views of these mountains are going to be smudged," says Peter Aengst, energy campaign coordinator for the Wilderness Society, part of the coalition.
The impact on air quality in the wilderness areas and the two national parks would be far less, but still significant if the impact of thousands more wells in adjacent fields are considered, the council report says of the BLM data. In that case, visibility in the wilderness areas could be significantly impaired 61 days a year with eight days of impaired visibility in Grand Teton and three days in Yellowstone.
Federal officials, without denying the veracity of the council tallies, interpret the data differently. They say there would be eight days of impaired visibility for the three wilderness areas and none for the national parks.
"Our data doesn't indicate that you're not going to be able to see the Wind River mountains," says Steven Hall, spokesman for the BLM in Cheyenne, Wy. "It means you will be able to notice the change. It's a worst-case scenario" that could be far less if "mitigation" - measures such as requiring cleaner generators and drill rig equipment - is applied.
Acknowledging the parks and wilderness have Class 1 air quality designations that protect them from being degraded under the Clean Air Act, Mr. Hall notes the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Forest Service, and National Park Service must also review and sign off on the proposal. A final decision will be made by early next year.
Activists, it should be noted, say they are not trying to stop the natural gas drilling, only make it an environmental showcase that preserves the air quality and environment. The big profits, they say, could pay for state-of-the-art drilling platforms that burn clean natural gas rather than diesel fuel - and other technologies. And they want to see the drilling phased in over time and an assessment of the cumulative impacts of all the wells on air quality - which the recent BLM assessment does not do.
"The BLM has inaccurately portrayed the impacts on air quality in the past and we don't fully understand if they're correct this time," says Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition.
She's fighting to make sure the drilling uses the best technology in part because she's lived in the valley for 24 years just south of Pinedale near the Wind River range, with its jagged peaks.
"On some days it's as if you could walk to them in 30 minutes, they seem so tantalizingly close and the air's so clear," she says. "But with this haze, it's as if someone's slowly pulling them away."