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The Rev. Warren Murphy
The Rev. Warren Murphy, who helped spark a faith-based approach to conservation in Wyoming by founding On Sacred Ground, enjoys the solitude and splendor of Sheep Mountain, west of Cody.

CODY, Wyo. — If the desert was good enough for Jesus, Moses and the Essenes, the Rev. Warren Murphy believes, then it’s good for Wyoming.

Murphy, who founded the Wyoming Association of Churches and is the longest-serving priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming, set off this week, not for the desert, but for a multifaith conference aimed at preserving it.

“The Red Desert is one of God’s stunning creations,” said Murphy, who lives in Cody. “It’s still a wild place, a wilderness, and wilderness is where people go to look for spiritual awareness.”

The 9,000-plus square miles of the Red Desert in south-central Wyoming remain one of the last intact high-desert ecosystems in the county. The desert is home to the nation’s largest living sand-dune system, and it supports the world’s largest herd of desert elk.

As Murphy notes, people have sought spiritual guidance here for thousands of years. Prehistoric rock art pecked into the cliffs dates back more than 10,000 years. In more recent times, the desert landscape played an important role in the lives of the Shoshone and Ute Indians.

But members of On Sacred Ground, a faith-based movement that Murphy helped start in 2007, believe the Red Desert is more vulnerable than ever to oil and gas exploration, along with the slow creep of pipes, roads, power lines and pump stations needed to support it.

When members of the National Council of Churches and the Wyoming Association of Churches gather for events in Lander, Rock Springs, Casper and Laramie this week, they will examine the question: “Conservation of the Red Desert: Where do we go from here?”

“The biggest threat facing the Red Desert right now is the tremendous push for energy development,” Murphy said. “The state Legislature even took away the few designations it had. But most of those politicians have never even been to the Red Desert.”

Murphy, who was ordained in 1972, uses biblical stories when discussing the desert wilderness and its offerings of solitude and spiritual growth.

There were the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the “Desert Fathers” of the early Christian Church, who, Murphy said, lived a hermetic life alone in the desert while searching for God’s truth.

“Jesus also went into the Negev Desert,” Murphy said. “That’s where the whole idea of Lent comes from — the 40 days and 40 nights he spent wandering in the wilderness, trying to figure out what God was telling him to do.”

The old stories lie at the heart of Judaism and Christianity, but Murphy draws parallels to modern times. The isolation of wilderness, a land untrammeled and uninterrupted, is a place to go in solitude and consider life’s meaning.

“For me, it’s a place to get away from the commercialism, the fast-paced lifestyle that doesn’t seem to have a positive direction,” Murphy said. “It’s a place to get a better perspective on what God wants us to do.”

A hardy hiker, Murphy receives insights during his wild treks — lessons that often end up in his sermons. They are stories of the Exodus and the Old Testament, but they are modern stories, too, ripe with spirituality and visions of conservation.

When he helped start On Sacred Ground, Murphy saw a need to combine faith-based and scientific responses when advocating for conservation. A year after forming, the group held a statewide conference on faith and the environment.

That inaugural event saw people of various denominations join the region’s leading environmental groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, to search for a new approach to conservation.

The discussion will continue this week with members of On Sacred Ground, members of the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes and community leaders who seek to preserve the desert landscape.

Other supporting groups include the Wyoming Outdoor Council, the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and a student group, Restoration Outreach and Research.

“God created the natural world,” Murphy said. “It was given as a blessing to people. It was meant to be cared for, looked after and protected, while at the same time receiving some benefits from it.

“That’s where the term stewardship comes from, and that’s one of the roles the church has played — to give back to the earth that which we’ve taken from it.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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