The stands of pine and aspen cast long shadows as the morning sun bears down on the Preuss Mountains, now richly iced with a winter's worth of snowfall. The helicopter shoots between the slopes like a weaver's shuttle, and below, the mountains are threaded with game trails where deer, elk and moose have repeatedly passed.
Then abruptly , against the Wilderness of Camel Hollow, rises a big red-and-white drilling rig-B Rig 66-turning a drill bit for below the surface. In 165 days the rig has drilled 9,423 feet of rock, and there are 5,000 more feet to go for a Texas oil company placing a multimmillion-dollar bet for gas or oil.
Somehow it has happened that out here in the wilds lies the hottest prospect for new oil and gas discoveries in the United States-a tremendous sweep of unseen geology called the Overthrust Belt under parts of Utah, Wyoming , Idaho and Montana.
Most of that hot prospect, though, also happens to be under some of the nation's most vast and awesome wilderness treasures: million of acres of national forests, some as undisturbed by man as the deposits the oilmen hope are waiting below. "This is the place the rest of the country goes if you can't get to Alaska," says one local.
That coincidence has posed a critical dilemma for the federal government:
Conservationists want the forests' environmental values determined in lengthy studies, and critical areas then permanently set aside, before allowing in the oil exploration that may forever change that environment. The oil and gas industry, however, holds that a nation dependent on foreign supplies or almost one-half of its oil cannot place expansive tracts of land off-limits without first knowing whether there is gas and oil underneath.
The Carter administration, which will have to resolve the conflict, has called for both more wilderness and less dependence on foreign oil.
The conflict over the future of federal lands here is the result of two pressing forces at work in the nation's energy industry - new technology, like that enabling geologists to "see" possible oil and gas deposits thousands of feet deepter in the earth than before, and higher prices, making it more profitable to find and produce new oil and gas supplies.
In fact, in energy industry it is generally considered that the size of the United States' domestic oil and natural gas supplies in coming years will be determined by just three things: new technology, higher prices and access to federally controlled areas.
For years, it had been suspected that a complex underground rock structure here held potential for oil and gas. Sediment from a long-gone sea, the rocks are perhaps 100 million years old, and the grand forces of nature have folded and squeezed them, forcing the rock beds to crack and be thrust up over themselves. Hence the name, the Overthrust Belt.
Not until 1974 did seismic technology add thousands of feet to how far down geologists could map rock structures, raditional seismic techniques - setting off an explosive charge and measuring the sound waves as they return from far below - had been joined to the computer, which could read up to 24 times as many returning sound waves from the same blast.
"We've been out there since 1969," said David Work, division geologist for Amoco in Denver, "and for five years we were unable to get a picture back that was reliable."
In 1975 an independent Texas oil driller, American Quasar, struck oil at Pineview, Utah, and the rush was on. Since then, more than 70 wildcats have been drilled, and there have been six or seven discoveries in the Overthrust Belt, all on privately owned ground except for one federally managed grasslands.
"That technology," said Lyle Hale, a consulting geologist to the May Petroleum Co., which is drilling here at Camel Hollow, "made it possible to decipher this complex geology we have here in the Overthrust Belt - and the rise in price made it possible to come up here."
May spent $400,000 on road improvements to get to Camel Hollow and has spent $3.5 million drilling here so far. It has an additional $1.5 million to go before the well reaches its target. The red-and-white drilling rig that came here from the North Slope of Alaska rents for $7,000 a day.
James F. Flug of the Washington-based Energy Action Committee said the reason new drilling activity has picked up in recent months is because drillers relaxed several years ago in anticipation of taking advantage of today's higher prices.
Much of the national forest land covering the Overthrust Belt is under consideration for preservation as permanent wilderness as part of a government study of national forest areas inaccessible due to lack of roads. Current drilling is generally either on private land or on land already scarred by roads, like that here in Camel Hollow.
The Forest Service, caught between the push by oilmen and the shove of conservationists, has tentatively denied two drilling permits near here in the Bridger and Teton national forests in Wyoming.
In one case, an effort by the National Cooperative Refinery Association to drill at Cache Creek brought opposition from the Sierra Club and this Fores Service response:
Drilling "cannot be conducted without significant impact to soil, water, aesthetics, potential wilderness, wildlife, recreation . . . and aspects of the social and economic structure of Teton County and the twon of Jackson."
Jackson Hole has become a prosperous summer and winter tourist attraction, but at stake, as the Sierra Club sees it, are still untouched wildlife habitats, pristine waterways, fragile mountain soils and a way of life in the mountain valleys that could be permanently altered should the cry of "Oil!" turn communities into boom towns. Now, winter here still brings out mighty draft horses to pull sledges heavy with hay bales from which ranchers feed cattle in snow-covered pastures.
Bridger-Teton administrators have recommended a full environmental impact study of any drilling at Cache Creek. The study would take 18 months.
Other oil companies, which defend their abilities to drill in the forests without wreaking environmental havoc, also face prolonged delays in getting access to drill sites. Atlantic Richfield has drilled two dry holes in the Overthrust Belt and anticipates delays as it applies for permission to drill in areas being studied for wilderness classification.
Philip Hocker, chairman of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club, notes that the current argument involves the unknown. No one knows what the ultimate impact of oil and gas exploration is going to be on this stunning expanse of wild America. And the oil companies cannot say for sure there is oil or gas under a given site.
Also unknown is what happens when some wildcat well strikes pay dirt, for none of the discoveries in the Overthurst Belt has yet been on Forest Service land. But it would seemingly create new conflicts over access to wilderness areas and the impact on wildlife habitat. Should May Petroleum find natural gas here at Camel Hollow, it would have to construct a 25-mile-long pipeline through the surrounding area, much of which is being considered for permanent wilderness.