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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

Weekly Review: January 18th

Update on the federal government shutdown’s impacts on Wyoming.

Yellowstone National Park

Park officials say federal employees have started providing some basic services again, despite the ongoing partial government shutdown. Last weekend staff resumed collecting trash, cleaning bathroom and manning park entrances to provide safety information. Staff are removing snow at overlooks along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Recreation fee revenue is paying for the service. This money is from entrance, camping, parking and other fees previously collect from park visitors. Many of the services, such as trash collection, have been done by tour guides that operate in the park and community groups. Staff won’t collect fees during the shutdown and visitor centers will remain closed.

I also have to give kudos to the volunteers who’ve cleaned restrooms and have taken out trash in Yellowstone. Volunteers have used windshield scrapers to remove frozen human waste from the sides of toilets. Others have cleaned up rest stops and remove garbage.

Additional kudos goes to K-Bar Pizza of Gardiner, Montana who has given pizza to those volunteers. Another to Conoco who donated gas cards to volunteers and Yellowstone Forever who donated garbage bags. Many volunteers also paid for supplies out of pocket.

 

Devils Tower remains open

Devils Tower is accessible during the federal shutdown, but no National Parks Service staff members are on site. The buildings and bathrooms are closed. The National Parks Service website and social media are not being updated, meaning access to Devils Tower and other federal sits could change without notice.

Visitors should use caution and follow all safety protocols when entering federal sites because emergency services are limited during the partial government shutdown.

 

National Historic Trails Interpretive Center remains closed

The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper has been closed since December 21st due to the partial government shutdown. Six full-time federal employees aren’t able to go to work.

The 11,000 square foot center offers visitors a variety of exhibits and programs designed to educate visitors about the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express trails. The trails all passed through central Wyoming.

On December 31st, center officials posted an apology on the museum’s Facebook page for being closed.

 

Wyoming energy projects on federal lands

Four of the Bureau of Land Management’s field offices will begin working through applications for permits to drill on Monday. The Buffalo, Casper, Pinedale and Rawlins field offices will focus on critical paperwork for the industry. This includes processing drilling permit applications that were near approval, right of ways that are tied to applications for drilling permits and alterations on approved permits.

What the BLM cannot do is process applications that need wildlife or archaeological evaluations. Those staff have not received exemptions to the shutdown.

 

Nationwide

Outside Magazine states that eight hundred of the 2,300 BLM staff remain on duty during the shutdown to serve the oil and gas industries.

They are also pushing forward with plans to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska Public Media discovered that one BLM employee sent emails to schedule meetings related to the drilling environmental review process on January 3rd. This is problematic because the review process is supposed to be transparent and facilitate public input. However, BLM staff are not available to answer the public’s questions.

 

The River and the Wall has a premiere date

On January 4th I shared the trailer for the River and the Wall, a documentary that talks about the impacts a border wall would have on the people who live near there, wildlife and the Rio Grande River.

Ben Masters, who created the project, announced on Instagram on Wednesday that the premiere date has been set. The film will be released at the SXSW 2019 Film Festival, which is March 8-17.

Masters said the crew locked picture Monday evening and will have the finished film by late February. They are currently working out plans for a nationwide release.

According to Masters, you’ll never look at the border the same after you watch his film. “It’s so much more than a black line on the map and it gives voice to landowners, border patrol, Republican policymakers, Democrat policymakers, the wildlife there, immigrants and others.”

To get a sneak peak of what will be in the film, go to the River and the Wall Instagram page and take a look at the saved stories.

 

CWD found in a new elk hunt area near Sheridan

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department confirmed a cow elk has tested positive for chronic wasting disease in Elk Hunt Area 37. The elk was harvested by a hunter in late December. CWD has been previously documented in deer in overlaying Deer Hunt Area 24 but this is the first time an elk has tested positive.

To ensure that hunters are informed, Game and Fish announces when CWD is found in a new hunt area. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that hunters not consume any animal that is obviously ill or tests positive for CWD.

A map of CWD endemic areas is available on the Game and Fish website.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is concerned about CWD and how it may affect the future of Wyoming’s deer. The disease is fatal to deer, elk and moose. Recent research in Wyoming and Colorado shows that it may pose a threat to deer populations in areas with a high prevalence of the disease.

In 2018, Game and Fish personnel tested 5,280 CWD samples during this year’s hunting seasons, a significant increase from past years and continues to evaluate new recommendations for trying to manage the disease.

My upcoming adventures

Ice Fishing Derby

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I’ll be volunteering at the Saratoga Ice Fishing Derby this weekend. It’s a fun event with many cash prizes. The top trout of every hour gets a prize. There’s additionally three tagged fish that are worth big bucks!

Last year the Saratoga Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce, with the Silver Spur Ranch, also introduced the sucker skirmish. People got prizes for catching the biggest sucker. The suckers are an invasive species in Saratoga Lake, so this new objective had two benefits. The person who caught it could win a cash prize, and the lake was losing some of the suckers. This year, the Chamber and Silver Spur are taking it a step further. The person who catches the most suckers on Saturday will win $150. The most on Sunday will win $100.

You can still register for the event here! The event is on Saturday from 7 am to 5 pm and Sunday 7 am to 2 pm. The entry for adults is $35 and $10 for children.

Bighorn Sheep Capture

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I’ll be joining Wyoming Game and Fish for their capturing of Bighorn Sheep near the Encampment River. I took part in the activities last winter and have been invited again this year. It’s a great experience to see them capture the Bighorn ewes, collect samples and put collars on them. They’ll watch their movements to see where they go to forage throughout all seasons of the year. Game and Fish will also compare the data of this herd with others in Wyoming.

 

What I’m watching

Here’s a video on another capture, this one for mule deer.

mule deer capture