The Cleanest Line

Getting to Know Jonah

Getting to Know Jonah

Oct 10, 2008 October 10, 2008

JonahcowboyJonah. That’s the title. Simple, direct. About as austereas the landscape it refers to. Jonah is a book, and an unlikely one at that.It’s part cowboy, part environmentalist, part roughneck, and part naturalist.It’s part photo-journalism and part poetry. It’s naked fact and nuancedunderstanding. And it’s the self-published product of a young woman who, atjust 25 years old, has managed to herself live a bit of each of these lives.

Nikki Mann is the editor/photographer/publisher of Jonah.She is, among many other things, a biologist hired by an oil and gasdevelopment company to conduct wildlife surveys of potential drill areas toassist in permit compliance. Officially, her job consisted of assessing thebiodiversity of these areas and submitting reports on the various speciespopulations living therein. The purpose of these official reports was to helpdetermine the impacts of oil and gas development. Government reporting is long onfacts and lean on story. Mann has long since turned in her fact-laden reports.Jonah is her attempt, along with cowboy poet Andy Nelson, totell this landscape’s stories.

[All photos by Nikki Mann, unless noted on photo. Many of Mann’s photos are coupled with captions and complimented (or contrasted) with selections of Andy Nelson’s cowboy poetry. Click on photos below to expand selections and read the text.]

Jonah5_2The landscape is, after all, the beating heart of Jonah.The book is named after the intensely mined Jonah Field, one of the most concentratednatural gas deposits in the U.S. Jonah Field is located in Wyoming’s SubletteCounty. The Sublette Community Partnership’s Socioeconomic Assessment has this to say about Jonah Field:

Jonah Field, located in southern Sublette County, WYabout 35 miles south of Pinedale and about 70 miles north of Rock Springs,after being “rediscovered” in the early 1990’s was heralded as one of the mostsignificant on-shore natural gas discoveries in the second half of the 20thcentury [sic]. Jonah represented a turning point in natural gas production asthe gas contained in Jonah is trapped deep underground in extremely “tight”sand formations. New technologies and higher gas prices allowed companies tolucratively produce gas from an “unconventional” source. Due to the depth of the wells and complexityof the perforation techniques used to fracture the underground sand formations,drilling and production in Jonah requires substantially larger workforcerequirements over a longer period of time then compared to conventionalon-shore fields. The success of effective and lucrative gas extraction from thetight sand field led the way to future expansion of the nearby PinedaleAnticline field a few years later.

Jonah Field is the type of place energy development enthusiasts think of when they chant “Drill, Baby! Drill!” By all economic accounts, Jonah has been wildlysuccessful. With 10.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, it is one of thelargest on-shore discoveries in the 1990s. The Bureau of Land Management’s recent approval of 3100new wells for this area is testament to the enthusiasm with which Jonah’sprojects have been embraced. That it is accessible from a surprisingly small 36square miles (approx. 23,000 acres) makes Jonah Field by far one of the mostconcentrated domestic natural gas sources in development.

PronghornMann’s biological survey work revealed discoveries of asimilar concentration and significance. Contrary to the suggestions of thedull, featureless umber hills that characterize the landscape of Jonah Field,the terrain harbors a stunning depth of biological diversity and culturalhistory within its impact zone. A description of the areaoffered by the Upper Green River Valley Coalition echoes Mann’s findings:

Nestled between the high peaks of western Wyoming’s WindRiver, Gros Ventre and Wyoming Ranges, our valley is home to more than 100,000big game animals, continental America’s longest big-game migration route and acrucial link to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), the largestpublicly-owned big game winter range in the GYE, the largest mule deer herd inU.S., one of the west’s last best sage grouse habitats, a world-class fishery, and one of the largestnatural gas reserves in the U.S.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council offers an excellent overviewvideo highlighting the concerns surrounding expanded gas development in thisarea.

When it comes to environmental and energy issues, we no longer live in a time of easy conversations. It israre when authors and editors dealing with contentious, complicated issues successfullyresist the pull to align their texts with a particular side and presentinformation in a way that honors all parties. With Jonah, Mann resists thispull admirably. Her blend of photos, detailed captions, and Nelson’s deeplyreflective poetry reveal how hard it can be to spend time with a ranchingfamily and not begin to sense the depth of connection they’ve formed with a Songs_2landscape they’ve depended upon for generations. It’s similarly difficult toview Mann’s intimate portraits of drill-rig workers (roughnecks) and notrespect their commitment to family; one that drives them to earn their paythrough long, mid-winter shifts on days when high temperatures struggle toreach -20F. And it’s hard glean facts from the text and not sympathize withenvironmentalists who point out that Pinedale’s citizens—7000 of them living atthe heart of our country’s largest intact ecosystem—are breathing some of thedirtiest air in the country.

Mann’s commitment was to tell a story that needed to betold. It was through hard work and belief that the book came to be born. Andnot a day too soon. The conversation it contributes to is one where a voice likeJonah‘s is needed. She has done an honorable job in telling the tale. The least wecan do is tell a bit of hers.

Ms. Mann is a professional biologist, full-time ranchhand, a working journalist, a creative writer, a horse-packer, self-trainedphotographer, and one of few women to complete grueling ferrier training (blacksmithing horseshoes from raw stock). In 2006, she setoff with her partner, Jeff Wohl, on a expedition of the type rarely undertakenin modern America. Their aim was to get to know the high, wild lands at the heartof America in a way our modern culture first discovered it: on foot and on theback of a horse. So they built all of their expedition gear. From scratch. Theystitched the leather of their packsaddles, nailed the wood of their packframes, and smithed the iron of their horseshoes. And in the still-snowy Aprilair, set off to cross the great open spaces of country stretching fromnorthwestern Nevada clear to Upper Green River plains, a distance of about1,000 miles.Moonlight_poem

Perhaps this is why Mann persisted after Jonah was embraced then abandoned by a list of partners and publishers. She is, after all, familiar with hardship and endurance, and understands the strength to deal with such elements comes only from a deeply rooted love of the land. Her connection to the Upper Green River Valley runs deep, and her dedication to honoring the voices participating in conversations about the Upper Green River Valley is palpable in Jonah‘s pages.

[Bottom photo: Jeff Wohl, Rafter NJ Photography]

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