Wyoming’s Public Lands Initiative

Throughout the past two years I followed the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association started the initiative in 2016. Their goal was to address the status of 45 Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in the state encompassing 700,000 acres.

encampment river
Encampment River Canyon Wilderness Study Area

A WSA is a designation that applies to lands that federal agencies manage to protect wilderness characteristics. Congress set these lands aside about 30 years ago. They intended to evaluate the undeveloped lands for significant wilderness characteristics. The evaluations would have allowed Congress to decide how to designate the land. This could range from wilderness areas to multiple uses. Of Wyoming’s 45 WSAs, the US Forest Service manages three. The Bureau of Land Management maintain the other 42.

In the entire nation, the BLM has 545 wilderness study areas with a total area of 12,790,291 acres. The US Forest Service manages 26 wilderness study areas.

When the initiative started, Carbon, Fremont, Johnson, Washakie, Teton, Park and Sublette Counties signed up to take part. After two years of work, Teton, Park and Sublette Counties couldn’t come to a consensus on how to designate their wilderness study areas.

The Wyoming County Commissioners Association is drafting the bill for the counties that completed the initiative.  Former executive director Pete Obermuller is heading up the project with a few others individuals. Once the counties approve the draft, it will be introduced to Congress.  Obermueller’s goal for having the recommendations to Congress is within the first quarter of 2019.

Obermueller commended the work of the counties who partook in the WPLI process.

“We knew that we wouldn’t solve every single acre,” Obermueller said, “And we knew we wouldn’t have 100 percent agreement in all places.”

1102_Seminoe View
Bennett Mountain Wilderness Study Area as seen from Seminoe State Park

In Carbon County, Committee Chair John Espy contributed the success of the process to the other committee members. From the beginning, he said they agreed to not put their personal feelings at the forefront of their job. Instead they focused on the people who use the land, getting comments from recreationalists and local ranchers.

“We started out from the beginning with an open mind as a rule,” Espy said. “We learned to trust each other and work together. We didn’t let our personal biases cloud our thinking from the start.”

I also appreciated how every person on the Carbon County committee saw the importance of preserving the landscape of the areas they were talking about. While not everyone agreed on the best practice to preserve the land, their intentions were pure.

I also talked to Fremont County’s WPLI Chair Doug Thompson. He too contributed the success of his group to having open minds and considering public input.

“We had a lot of public input,” Thompson said. “We tried to consider it. It came down to a use or no use decision. We tried to find wording that would accommodate those who wanted to prevent the more destructive aspects of development but also allow for appropriate economic development in the continuation of activities taking place on the land.”

You can find the recommendations for the Wilderness Study Areas here. County led committees recommended four WSAs throughout the state for wilderness. These include the Encampment River Canyon and Prospect Mountain in Carbon County, Sweetwater Canyon in Fremont County and Bobcat in Washakie County.

While I didn’t witness it, I heard “horror stories” about the process in Teton County. As the committee started to fall apart, the members weren’t even talking to each other anymore. In October the Teton Board of County Commissioners decided to abandon any recommendations for the WSAs. The dirt bikers, snowmobilers, mountain bikes and heli-skiiers fought against everyone else. They created a group, the Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands, to fight against any new wilderness. In the end, the Teton County Commissioners dropped the committee because they couldn’t come to consensus.

I find it unfortunate that the Teton, Park and Sublette committees couldn’t come to a consensus, but I’m glad they tried working through the initiative. Hopefully someday the residents and interest groups can try again.

 

Lincoln, Bighorn and Sweetwater Counties didn’t take part in the initiative at all. This puts their public lands at jeopardy and takes the public involvement away. Instead, they decided to join a legislative bill proposed by Representative Liz Cheney. This bill is titled “Restoring Public Input (insert scoffing here) and Access to Public Lands Act of 2018.” It doesn’t take into account an in depth public review and would lift all protections on the Wilderness Study Areas on about 400,000 acres in those three counties. It also would restrict future designations of wilderness areas.

Cheney claims that the wilderness study designation “prevents access, locks up land and resources, restricts grazing rights and hinders good rangeland and resource management.”  She further noted in a September 27th statement that the bill she introduced will “provide citizens and local officials in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties more authority to determine how best to manage the federal land within their counties.” While that part sounds good, I don’t like that she didn’t ask all interest groups on the best way to address the landscape.

The bill passed the House Natural Resource Committee on November 15th. Nineteen republicans on the committee backed the bill while 11 democrats opposed it. This also annoyed me because public lands and conservation should NOT be a bipartisan issue. However, the bill will now move to the full U.S. House for possible consideration.

 

adobe town
Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area

Several people criticized the county commissioners who decided to team up with Cheney. They said this route didn’t allow the public to be part of the process on their lands. Cheney’s critics scoff at the bill, starting with its title’s nod to public input, which they called misleading.

The biggest concern was over a Wilderness Study Area in Sweetwater County. The Adobe Town WSA is a treasured place among those who have visited, myself included. Rare species, badland features, fossils, and surrounding vistas make Adobe Town a special haven.

Adobe Town has garnered significant citizen support for Wilderness designation by Congress. It was part of the 2011 Citizen Wilderness Proposal for BLM Lands in Wyoming. This proposal had the support of thousands of Wyoming citizens and many conservation groups across the state.

But Adobe Town is rich in oil and gas resources, making the region one of the most threatened landscapes in Wyoming.

 

The Wyoming Wilderness Association has taken steps to try to protect Adobe Town. They plan to make a documentary film to bring national awareness to the landscape. The film will help educate the public about the extensive oil and gas leasing taking place near and near into the sacred corners of Adobe Town. It will also provide ways for the public to influence management decision, such as leasing, on areas that should be off limits to extraction. Finally, the film will be the first step toward including Greater Adobe Town and the Adobe Town WSA as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. You can donate to the cause here.

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