JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. -- For 6,000 years, elk, deer and pronghorn antelope have fled the numbing snows of the high country for the sagebrush plains of western Wyoming. Winter doesn't negotiate here. If the animals don't make it out of the mountains, they die.
The problem is, the path between those summer and winter ranges lies on the edge of one of the United States' most productive natural gas fields. The new gas wells south of here aren't producing the usual 1 million cubic feet a day; some of them are gushing 10 times that. Oil men spend lifetimes dreaming about wells like these.
Now, factor this into the picture: Some of the best potential gas reserves lie just south of the nation's two most prized national parks -- Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the granddaddies of wilderness in the continental United States. The undulating glacial valleys, wild rivers and forested peaks under study for gas development are key links in the nation's largest intact temperate ecosystem.
What'll it be? Elk or natural gas? Can you have both?
Dilemmas such as this are playing out all over the Rocky Mountains. From the Rocky Mountain Front in northwestern Montana to southern Wyoming's Red Desert and Colorado's Vermillion Basin, the U.S. Interior Department will be taking a new look at millions of acres of now-closed federal land as a hedge against the nation's worsening energy crisis.
Unlike the remote Arctic wildlife refuge at the top of the world where the nation's best-known energy war has been playing out, these are some of the nation's best-known scenic resources, in the heart of the American West.
Rising natural gas prices and a boom in gas-fueled power plants have spurred industry interest in lands once thought too remote or technologically difficult. The result is likely to be a major collision between wilderness preservation and energy development from Montana to New Mexico.
"It gets down to, do you want cheap oil and gas, or do you want Yellowstone?" said Meredith Taylor of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which is fighting an industry proposal to lease 370,000 acres of Bridger-Teton National Forest, south of Yellowstone, for oil and gas drilling.
Then again, industry officials say, if you don't get the gas here, where are you going to get it? What wild land in the United States isn't somebody's treasured retreat?
"Somebody asked me, 'How many wells do you want to drill?'" said Dennis Brabec, a gas contractor in Wyoming who has been one of the leading proponents of opening Bridger-Teton for drilling. "I told him, I don't determine how many wells I want to drill. The determination is made by the consumer. How much does the consumer want to pay for gas?"
The National Petroleum Council estimates 40 percent of the potential gas resources in the Rockies -- about 137 trillion cubic feet -- lies on federal land closed to exploration or subject to restrictions.
Wilderness advocates call that an exaggeration. But throughout the United States, sweeping moves to set aside wilderness, including the Clinton administration's move to designate 21 new national monuments and 56 million acres of roadless areas, have, for better or worse, closed off access to valuable oil and gas reserves.
An estimated 11.3 trillion cubic feet of gas lies underneath protected roadless areas, most of it in Wyoming, the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah, and the western Montana thrust belt.
In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey found a high probability of oil and gas resources underneath five of the 21 national monuments established since 1996.
"Wyoming's energy potential could completely replace the entire OPEC production for the next 41 years," Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer recently told a House committee. "We have it. America needs it."
Geringer wrote a letter urging Bridger-Teton National Forest's supervisor, Carole "Kniffy" Hamilton, to open drilling access.
More than 13,000 public comments have come in on the leasing proposal, the majority of them urging Hamilton to stick with her preliminary decision to keep the area closed. A final decision is due in mid-July.
The location of Bridger-Teton between Yellowstone and a huge gas field that already is producing makes it a unique study in the politics of oil and the environment.
The proposed drilling area lies 35 miles outside the resort town of Jackson, which relies on the scenic beauty of the surrounding countryside for its economic livelihood.
Cheney himself, a former oilman, hails from Wilson, Wyo., just outside Jackson.
While the Chamber of Commerce and county board of commissioners have opposed drilling in Teton County because of the potential costs to tourism, some residents hold the opposite view.
"I always feel like we can't just say, 'Our place is more pristine, and you can't have a gas field here,' and then 90 miles down the road there's huge gas fields," Jackson resident Kate Mead said. "Quite frankly, the world needs our gas."
The four tracts proposed for leasing are prized for their pristine trout streams, grizzly bear habitat and crucial big-game winter range.
In making a tentative decision not to lease, the U.S. Forest Service noted the air and water pollution associated with gas development, and the need to protect "a sense of place" in the wilderness.
Gloria Flora, former Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor, coined that standard when she closed off portions of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front to oil and gas leasing in 1997. Part of her justification -- that the remote frontier evokes a "sense of place" in people who go there -- is still being fought out in the courts.
Brabec knows about a sense of place. He has a ranch not far from Bridger-Teton; he fishes in many of the streams conservationists want to protect. He believes that nature and oil are not mutually exclusive.
In a trip around a major operation near Big Piney, south of the Bridger-Teton study area, Brabec pointed to herds of antelope wandering through production fields.
"There was a comment made about whether Dick Cheney would like to have a gas well right next to his favorite fishing stream. The fact is, up here, we do," Brabec said. With new technology, he said, most gas wells are hard to see on the landscape once they are drilled and producing. Once they are removed, the land is reclaimed to its former condition.
Much of America's past energy conflicts have been fought over huge tracts along the coasts and on the North Slope of Alaska. Bridger-Teton illustrates the way modern energy policy is being decided a piece at a time.
Most of the nation's gas reserves, industry officials say, are hidden in the hills and deserts. The companies that exploit them will for the most part be small independent operators whose success will depend on their ability to explore cheaply and expand quickly.
In Bridger-Teton, half of the national forest -- mainly the southern end, miles from Yellowstone -- is under lease for oil and gas development. Hamilton said she's inclined to think that is enough.
"Public lands used to be mainly used for mining, grazing, timber production. But over the years, because of the change in social values, people have also begun to feel these lands are very valuable for wilderness and recreational values," she said.