As citizens in nine Wyoming counties work to resolve the fate of 750,000 acres of federal wilderness study areas, U.S Rep Liz Cheney is drafting her second bill that could remove environmental protections and disrupt the bi-partisan grassroots initiative.
Cheney is working with constituents to draft a bill to “remove all Wyoming [Wilderness Study Areas] from the limbo,” her spokeswoman Maddy Weast said in an email to WyoFile. “Individuals, local officials and organizations across the state have asked Congressman Cheney to address the issue,” Weast wrote.
But local officials WyoFile spoke to worry that another Cheney wilderness-study bill could exacerbate tensions or even scuttle the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative.
WPLI has convened diverse groups of citizen stakeholders in nine counties — Carbon, Campbell, Fremont, Hot Springs, Johnson, Park, Sublette, Teton and Washakie — with the intention of building consensus around managment for each county’s WSAs. The resulting recommendations would then be communicated to Wyoming’s congressional delegation for inclusion in legislation. Cheney’s Dec. 20 heli-skiing bill upset some initiative participants because it “tilts the table,” throws a “cherry bomb” in the mix, and is “a bit of a disruption” to the public lands initiative, Teton County Commission Chairman Mark Newcomb said this week.
Initiative leader and Wyoming County Commissioners Association Executive Director Pete Obermueller agreed Cheney could cause a backlash. “If you think the reaction to heli-skiing is bad, wait until this second bill is introduced,” he wrote the commissioners on Dec. 27.
Among the concerns is whether efforts to prioritize local input in federal land management decisions — an oft-stated Republican objective — are being undercut by Cheney’s bills.
But not all counties chose to participate in the initiative, Cheney’s spokeswoman said in her email. Two of those non-participants — Lincoln and Sweetwater — contain wilderness study areas, according to the WPLI website.
Cheney believes “we should do all we can to honor the views of our local officials, individuals and stakeholders to remove all Wyoming WSAs from the limbo in which they currently exist,” Weast wrote WyoFile. Cheney is “working with those interested parties to draft legislation to do that.”
What will be in Cheney’s new bill?
Cheney plans to introduce her second bill in early January, Obermueller wrote in his email. The bill would require the Forest Service to recommend whether the Palisades and Shoal Creek wilderness study areas should receive full-fledged wilderness designation or be released for multiple use. Only Congress can designate wilderness areas, and until it acts, WSAs are to be managed to preserve their wilderness characteristics.
Under Cheney’s bill, “if that [Forest Service] recommendation is that they are not suitable for Wilderness, they will be immediately released and managed as a non-wilderness component of the national forest system,” Obermueller wrote. Neither Weast nor Obermueller said what Cheney’s bill might require for WSAs the BLM or Forest Service deem fit for permanent wilderness protection.
The BLM performed such an inventory in 1991, Obermueller and Weast said. At that point — under the George H. W. Bush administration — the agency said about half of its study areas should be released for multiple use management, Obermueller said. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso introduced a bill in 2011 to accomplish that recommendation.
It “generated a lot of opposition in the Senate,” said Obermueller, who worked as a D.C. staffer for Rep. Cynthia Lummis before heading the commissioners’ association. Federal land issues on Capitol Hill “are stymied almost all of the time,” he said.
That was before Republicans gained control of both Congress and the White House in 2016.
WPLI was advanced as an effort to overcome such gridlock, at least among Wyomingites, with the idea that a demonstration of local buy-in could prompt congressional action, Obermueller told Teton commissioners in a phone conference Tuesday. Study areas were not intended to be permanent and “need to go away,” he said. The WSA limbo status, in which preservation rules are in force, is “bad management,” he said.
Cheney’s new bill appears to revert, instead, to Barrasso’s 2011 approach. “There has been talk of a [new] bill like that [once proposed by Barrasso] moving forward,” Obermueller told the commissioners.
Weast said while the BLM study areas were reviewed by that agency in 1991, the Forest Service has not undertaken a similar process for Wyoming WSAs.
Is Cheney undermining the grassroots effort?
Foremost in several Teton commissioners’ minds is whether Cheney’s bills, which they say are being forged without their input, are undermining their and Obermueller’s efforts. “Needless to say, folks in Teton County definitely have their antenna up,” said Newcomb, who seeks to “preserve the integrity of the WPLI process.”
Cheney’s heli-ski bill introduced Dec. 20 would expand helicopter skiing in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area from about 60 skier-days a winter to up to 1,200. According to Weast, that bill seeks to overturn “frivolous lawsuits and misguided decisions by the courts,” and reinstate “the original intent of the Wyoming Wilderness Act.”
If the heli-skiing bill passes “it kind of supersedes the good of the WPLI process,” Teton commissioner Greg Epstein said during the phone conference Tuesday. “Doesn’t that move it from a wilderness designation, ultimately?” The locally driven consensus building process is “suddenly threatened,” Newcomb said.
Cheney stands in contrast with Barrasso, who wrote a note to commissioners encouraging work at the local level, and U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, who also “warmly received” the WPLI process, the Teton chairman said. Barrasso’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Cheney’s heli-skiing bill and Enzi’s office has said it will not respond to requests for comment from WyoFile.
“We feel a little discouraged… [Cheney] didn’t at least come forward and say, ‘In my mind this is the right thing to do.’” The lack of notice “make[s] it more difficult for the WPLI committee to reach a consensus-based outcome,” Newcomb said.
Cheney led rejection of the Obama administration BLM planning 2.0 because “it didn’t allow the public process at the local level,” Epstein said. That makes it look like Cheney is touting local involvement only when it suits her agenda, Newcomb said.
Commissioners agreed to draft a letter to Cheney expressing their worries that the bill or bills might interrupt their local work, and to vote on it soon. They discussed whether other counties with wilderness study areas might sign on.
Teton commissioner Paul Vogelheim said in an interview that support from the statewide WPLI participants would carry more weight, especially given that a majority of Teton County residents did not vote for Cheney. Commissioner Smokey Rhea wondered aloud whether a letter to Cheney would make any difference, given she had introduced the heli-bill without consultation.
Teton County Chief Deputy Attorney Keith Gingery said Cheney, who has her Wyoming residence in Wilson, “was here all last week.” Yet no commissioner said Cheney had set aside time to talk to them, prompting Rhea to say “that’s sort of my point.”
Vogelheim heard “rumors” of the heli-ski bill in a September meeting with others in Cheney’s Washington, D.C. office, he said in an interview. He reported that to other commissioners in a public meeting and “we asked to be included in the loop,” he said.
While Teton commissioners felt blindsided by Cheney’s heli-skiing bill, Obermueller said the delegation has pledged nothing. “There was no promise to craft legislative language that must [meet] … what people wanted,” he said. The only public statement from the delegation was “the process makes sense […and…] has the best chance of success.”
Cheney did not sign on to the process, Obermueller said, and groups “less than supportive of Wyoming collaboration” began to weigh in. The heli-ski bill still would leave the Palisades a study area, he said.
The heli-ski measure also would prohibit construction of new recreational access points within the Forest Service study areas, Weast said, to prevent “over-use.”
“Over 1,000 Wyoming residents voiced their support to allow recreational uses to continue and Congressman Cheney is proud her bill has the support of Advocates for Multiple Use of our Public Lands, the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association, the Western Chapter of the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, Teton Freedomriders, and Dirtbikers Investing in Riding Trails (DIRT),” Weast wrote.
Finally, Newcomb asked Obermueller whether protesting Cheney’s bill or bills would upset Teton County’s “entire WPLI enchilada,” — including the chance of expanding existing wilderness protections as some WPLI participants have asked for. Newcomb leans “heavily toward conservation,” he said.
Obermueller urged the commissioners to stay at the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative. “I didn’t feel like this threatens that process,” he said of Cheney’s heli-skiing bill.
But some remained skeptical and at least want Cheney to be a better communicator. Newcomb complained that Cheney’s bills are driven “we are not sure by what.” The WPLI “could be destroyed real quickly by an unseen force out there,” he said.
Cheney’s heli-ski bill makes the local committee feel “a sense of deflation [that] whatever their product, [it] would be shot down,” he said. “I would appreciate more communication on her part.”
For Epstein, “It’s just a feeling of Washington coming in and undermining a local process,” he said. “We still need to represent… our community, the process that was set up, the public trust.”
This article was been corrected Jan. 4 to say that Sweetwater County, not Carbon County, is among those counties with WSAs that is not participating in the WPLI. Also, Sublette County is participating, and Natrona and Big Horn counties are participating at some level through neighboring counties’ initiatives, something not indicated on the WPLI map — Ed.