From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 105, Number 16 - April 17, 2008
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Air issue threatens county tourism

by Alecia Warren

Sublette County’s recent ozone levels have yet to draw near the daily numbers monitored in metropolises like Los Angeles, a vacation hot spot that certainly hasn’t suffered significant revenue loss because of smog.

But in Sublette County, where recreational appeal depends wholly on pristine wilderness and untainted mountain air, a little pollution goes a long way in frightening tourist dollars away.

Some predict that the five consecutive ozone alerts that sent locals into a panic in February and March might soon goad tourists into booking their pack trips and hunting expeditions elsewhere.

“The warning signs are there,” said John Godfrey, chairman of the Sublette County Joint Tourism Board, of possible dwindling interest in summertime activities. “People are having to make some narrow choices because of the price of gasoline. Why drive somewhere where there are issues that may impact the quality of your stay?”

The Green River Valley boasts harmless ozone levels most days of the year, but the very knowledge that ozone has risen above the national health standard here has the potential to spread paranoia about risks with vacationing in the area. Or so predict those whose livelihoods depend on the local tourism industry.

“I think the impacts are going to be mainly with people who have been here in the past, who know what the air quality was like 10 years ago and seen the deterioration,” said outfitter Gary Amerine, owner of Daniel-based Greys River Trophies. “It’s more the potential of clients not coming which will definitely impact the various outfitters that operate in this area.”

It might seem odd that ozone alone could cause such agitation. Undetectable by the senses, it lacks the asphyxiating dangers of last summer’s forest fires, when plumes of jet smoke snaked into town from the Bridger-Teton and tainted the sunset an oily brown. Nor does it render instant hacking spells like the gasoline exhaust from 18-wheelers on Pine Street.

“I wouldn’t say just strictly that the ozone level problem is all of it — a lot of it is just the air quality (in general),” Amerine said. The more visible Nitrous Oxide (NOx) emissions and volatile organic compounds (VOC) produced in the gas fields have produced an ever enlarging brown cloud over Sublette County in just the past few years, he said.

“We don’t have the vistas we used to have — I’ve heard that from numerous clients who have been here numerous times before,” Amerine said. “When we get on top of the Wyoming Range, a lot of days you can’t even see the Wind Rivers. That’s not an ozone problem, but it’s definitely an air quality problem.”

County vacationers who rough it every year at the Black Mountain Outfitters camp on the Wind Rivers have learned they can only catch clear glimpses of the landscape below on rare days when rainfall clears the smog. The peaks of Utah’s Uinta Mountains used to make an appealing photo, said Black Mountain owner Terry Pollard, but as of only four years ago, those were no longer visible from the Wind Rivers.

“I’ve definitely had clients mention that,” Pollard said.

Now just seeing the pink-framed words ‘Ozone Alert’ on Pinedale Online! Will stoke tourists’ imaginations about what’s happening to the local environment, he said.

“We’re still a long ways away from being Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, but these things get blown out of proportion,” Pollard said. “A lot of my clients contact me and say, ‘holy hell, I don’t know if I should even come down there.’ “As new (tourists) are looking at the area, they might say, ‘well heck, I’ve got that at home, why would I want to go to Wyoming?’”

He can only echo the pleas that all outfitters collectively rally: for energy operators in the local gas fields to slow the pace of development in the county and use cleaner technology. The Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields are the largest producers of emissions that combine to form ozone.

“I don’t think we need to take the risk of losing our tremendous fisheries and big game hunting and scenic values for the oil and gas industry,” Pollard said.

If anyone plans to make a difference, they should be prepared to make it soon, said Sophia Wakefield, owner of Log Cabin Motel in Pinedale. Wakefield remembered canceling a vacation to Alaska with her husband when they heard rumors of pollution from forest fires there, and she’s braced to experience similar reactions to the ozone alerts here.

“It’s catching attention very quickly, though I don’t think tourists have heard about it yet,” Wakefield said. “(Outdoor activities) require more oxygen, whether you’re skiing or hiking or going backpacking. Of course if I heard that an area has high ozone, especially an area where I was going to recreate, I would think twice.”

The Log Cabin Motel hasn’t lost any bookings yet, but it’s only a matter of time, Wakefield predicted.

“Once word gets out, if I was a tourist, I would cancel my trip to Pinedale,” she said.

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