PLATTE VALLEY — Jim and Matt McCaulley travel to Saratoga every year out of love for their father and a valley that never seems to change.
They fish. They float the North Platte River. They drink at the Wolf Hotel.
Jim lives in California. His brother in Maryland. When they come to Saratoga they stay at a house their father bought before he died. His picture hangs near the pool table in the hotel.
The McCaulleys are the type of tourists who have powered a portion of the Saratoga and greater Platte Valley economy for years. But new energy development in the region has longtime residents and visitors worrying about the valley’s future.
“Tell them to stay away,” Jim McCaulley said, sitting at the long, wooden bar surrounded by GO WYO license plates and aging Jack Daniel's and Budweiser signs. A 412-pound swordfish is hung above the bar.
“I would love to support the town, but you want it to remain idyllic. The culture and character, that is what we want,” he said.
Wolf Hotel bar manager Judd Campbell nodded quietly as they spoke. Campbell, a longtime Saratoga resident, is the president of Voices of the Valley, a citizens group that formed several years ago out of concern over the potential development.
“I love it here and care about what we have,” he said. “We’ve had people who have been coming for 15 or 20 years. I don’t want to lose them.”
The Platte Valley and surrounding region could become home to the largest wind farm in North America, a coal gasification plant, and 9,000 more gas wells. Thousands of workers could flood the valley.
Residents don’t want to stop the wind and wells and power lines and industrial plant, but they worry about where all of the new workers will live. Hotel rooms in town are already full with tourists in the summer and fall. They worry about their open spaces broken by overdevelopment. They worry about their valley’s small-town character.
The story of a small Wyoming valley facing an influx of people from energy projects is not new. It’s been told, analyzed and repeated through countless boom and bust cycles across the state.
The Platte Valley’s tale is a little different. It’s already built a sustainable tourism economy that Wyoming lawmakers and planners in other cities dream of achieving. For possibly the first time in state history, instead of waiting and hoping for jobs and dollars, some residents are stepping up. They want to protect their valley from becoming one more place on the list of towns chewed up by energy and spit out the other end.
Mountain ranges flank the Platte Valley in south-central Wyoming, about an hour’s drive west of Laramie. The Snowy Range on the east is home to one of the most iconic mule deer herds in the country, flourishing elk, and some of the few remaining moose populations in the state. The rugged and relatively undeveloped Sierra Madres line the west.
The pristine Upper North Platte River cuts through the middle. A promise of acrobatic brown and rainbow trout caught in an untamed stretch of river attracts visitors from around the world.
Saratoga, with 1,663 residents, is the largest of the valley’s three towns. Encampment, population 450, and Riverside, population 52, sit side by side 20 miles to the south.
American Indians first came to the area for the mineral hot springs. Settlers followed and stayed for the ranching, logging, timber and a short-lived copper mine, said Dick Perue, a Platte Valley historian and former owner of the Saratoga Sun, the local newspaper.
Soldiers from nearby Fort Fred Steele also brought English royalty and their families to the valley for hunting, fishing and the hot springs.
Sue Jones’ family came for the agriculture. Her great-grandfather homesteaded northeast of the town, and she moved to Saratoga in 1969. She served eight years on the town council and is now a county commissioner.
Her husband cut trees as a contractor for Louisiana Pacific until the company closed its mill in Saratoga 10 years ago.
Now they run a garbage collection service for the valley.
She knows progress is good, and some development inevitable. She just doesn’t want it to change the valley she’s worked so hard to protect.
If all projects move forward as planned, Carbon County, which is home to the valley, could experience the largest energy-related growth in the country, said Jim States, vice president of Voices of the Valley.
Some of the growth is in the Platte Valley, and some of it outside. Either way, workers will likely want to live in the area because of its pristine setting, he said.
Farthest away is the Continental Divide Creston Junction Natural Gas infill, about 90 miles to the northwest between Rawlins and Rock Springs. The gas field plans to add 9,000 wells.
About 50 miles northeast are plans for a coal-to-gasoline plant called Medicine Bow Fuel and Power owned by DKRW Advanced Fuels Inc. The project received its first construction permit in 2008, but was recently delayed another three years. If it succeeds, it could bring about 2,300 construction and 435 permanent operating jobs, according to the company.
The closest project is wind energy. The Chokecherry/Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project started by Power Company of Wyoming could include up to 1,000 turbines. It will be the largest project in North America and will sit on a 320,000-acre ranch about 10 miles outside of Saratoga.
“It’s the numbers,” Jones said. “You can’t say it won’t be a big deal or want to hide and watch. You have to know where to put people, and you have to have some regulations.”
Voices of the Valley wants to help develop some of that planning.
A handful of residents formed the group in 2009 with logistical support from the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit focusing on preserving Western land and communities. Voices is working on its official nonprofit status and is operating on its own now, funded by the George B. Storer Foundation.
The group’s biggest focus is housing.
If everything moves forward as planned, and workers move into all available housing between 100 and 150 miles of the valley, the region will still be short 200 housing units, said KayCee Alameda, executive director of Voices of the Valley. That includes hookups for trailer units and encompasses larger towns like Laramie and Rock Springs.
The group isn’t sure what the solution is, yet. Members don’t want man camps in the prairie. Workers should be incorporated into the towns so the new housing can be used after the workers are gone. They also don’t want subdivisions to be overbuilt only to be abandoned when the work slows down.
Many worry about the tourism that the area has nurtured and cultivated. If companies rent hotel rooms for several years, hunters, anglers and tourists won’t be able to find rooms and will go somewhere else. Once they’re gone, they may never come back, Alameda said.
Jones, the county commissioner, doesn’t want to see the valley’s wide expanses of mountain and prairie cut with trailers, houses, fences and roads. She wants to keep people near the towns and not spread out.
Mostly, the group wants to make sure people’s opinions are heard.
“The public is short on resources and the last one to hear what’s happening with projects,” States said.
States grew up in Saratoga, left to look for work, and found his way back after a career in environmental consulting. His background made him a natural fit for Voices of the Valley. Environmental planning processes are complicated, unwieldy and take time to understand. Federal law requires companies seek input from area residents, but few townspeople even know where to start, he said.
“We’re trying to fill a gap on behalf of the people who live here,” he said. “To help give them the resources and the knowledge if they so choose to play a more effective role in this decision process than has been played in other communities like ours including Pinedale or part of the Bakken development in North Dakota.”
The group is starting its practical, on-the-ground work with the valley’s iconic mule deer herd.
The Platte Valley mule deer herd used to be one of the largest in the country, migrating between Colorado and Wyoming. Hunters and wildlife photographers alike flocked to the valley to catch glimpses of massive bucks. But wildlife biologists worry about habitat fragmentation and loss of food.
Voices of the Valley recently took over running the Platte Valley Habitat Partnership, part of an unprecedented program by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department providing matching dollars to produce $500,000 worth of projects in the valley such as burning areas with old vegetation and improving aspen stands.
The group saw protecting mule deer as one way to defend the valley and support tourism, said Alameda, the group’s executive director. Its meetings are bringing more people, and they’re working on a solution to the housing problem.
Some people in Saratoga want to see more action from the group.
Joe Glode owns Shively Hardware on the north end of town. He’s tired of working in the public light. He served as mayor in the 1980s, formed the Wyoming Stockgrowers and Land Trust, was chairman of the water users association and has taught at the University of Wyoming.
The younger generation needs to take over.
“I want it to be at the doing stage, not still the thinking stage,” he said.
Voices of the Valley wants to work with the energy companies, especially with the nearby wind project. And the company is working with them, Alameda said.
Power Company of Wyoming has gone over and beyond involving Carbon County communities in its planning process. The company has participated in 49 meetings in Carbon County since 2008, including speaking at one Voices of the Valley event, said Kara Choquette, director of communications for the company.
The company tries to amplify all notices and information released by the BLM on the project and even sent informational postcards to every address in the county.
“It’s important to listen to all of the feedback, whether it’s a question at the Rawlins City Council meeting or it’s someone who comes up to us at a booth and asks for an application for a job,” she said. “We started this permitting process in 2008 and over the years you gain momentum and steam and the number of people who know what you are working on and how plans are progressing.”
The company could begin construction on roads and basic infrastructure by the end of the year.
As some valley residents become more involved in the cause, other residents are drifting away.
Jeff Streeter, a project manager for Trout Unlimited, moved to Saratoga in the ‘70s. He worked as a guide for the Old Baldy Club, a gated community with a golf course and pristine section of the Platte River. He was the streams and outdoor recreation manager for more than 30 years before finally moving to Trout Unlimited.
He doesn’t know what to think about the development. He likes his town and his valley the way it is. Change has never been easy for him, he said.
Whether or not workers flood the valley, housing becomes overrun and tourists leave, the view will be forever changed with 1,000 turbines dotting the horizon.
He isn’t fighting it. He understands the need for clean energy. Instead, Streeter bought a 110-year-old house on a hill in Encampment, within walking distance from a river and out of sight of any changes.