A Washington swamp-dweller from Virginia is trying to use the unchecked might of federal government to dismantle former Wyoming Rep. Dick Cheney’s signature legislative accomplishment.
Who is this guilty party gunning for the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act? It’s his daughter, Rep. Liz Cheney, who now holds her father’s old U.S. House seat. Even more ironically, she’s contradicting her own stated aims in the process. That’s right dear reader, believe it or not, a politician has been saying one thing, but doing the opposite. (Gasp!)
Cheney, the younger, has — both as a well-paid cable “news” bloviator and a congresswoman — portrayed herself as a champion of local control.
Government should be by and for the governed, goes the argument. And so regulatory and management decisions on everything from public lands to criminal justice should be made by those with the most hands-on knowledge and who stand to be the most affected — the people back home in the district, not the cruel federal behemoth.
It’s a fine idea, and makes for one heck of a 30-second campaign ad. Too bad the philosophy doesn’t actually inform Cheney’s conduct in Congress.
During her first month in office Cheney helped kill a proposed Bureau of Land Management rule she said was “implemented in the waning days of the Obama Administration [that] undermines local land management and dilutes the authority of our county commissioners.”
“Our local citizens, elected officials and stakeholders are the best stewards of our resources and lands,” the freshman congresswoman added. “I applaud President Trump for keeping his campaign promises to end federal overreach and return authority to our states and local communities.”
It sounded great. Nevermind that “planning 2.0,” as the now-dead BLM rule was known, was actually designed to facilitate public input and involvement.
Now flash forward to last month, when Cheney sponsored a bill that would benefit wealthy skiers (not exactly your downtrodden masses) in northwest Wyoming despite the wishes of the public and local governments. She wants to increase the number of trips helicopters can make to ferry well-heeled recreationists to otherwise hard-to-reach mountains from 60 skier-days per year to 1,200.
That’s a 20-fold hike, but according to a Dec. 26 Jackson Hole News&Guide article she didn’t seek a single comment from county commissioners.
“That’s extremely troubling,” Dan Smitherman, the Wilderness Society’s Wyoming representative told WyoFile. “There was no consultation with any local elected officials, and certainly not with any of the conservation or sportsmen’s groups that I deal with on a routine basis.”
A father’s legacy
The wilderness bill was so important to Dick Cheney that while he was recovering from his second heart attack in October 1984 he left his home for the Capitol to cast his vote.
Since Liz Cheney is 51, we can’t just chalk up her bill to teenage rebellion against a parent. I’m not privy to her motive, of course, but I hope she was able to keep her father from reading WyoFile, who broke the story of her legislative chicanery. Otherwise there might have been some family tension over Christmas dinner.
Many of you probably weren’t even born yet, but once upon a time there was something called “bipartisan cooperation.” It sounds silly and antiquated today, but what it meant was Republicans like Dick Cheney and Sens. Al Simpson and Malcolm Wallop worked together with Democrats to get key legislation passed. That’s what the all-GOP Wyoming delegation did to push through the Wyoming Wilderness Act.
In 1976 the federal government began an inventory of the wilderness quality public lands it managed in the state. Eight years later the delegation saw the Wyoming Wilderness Act passed. One of the things it did was designate wilderness study areas.
Since then 45 WSAs totaling about 750,000 acres in Wyoming have languished in limbo.These areas are protected to maintain such wilderness qualities as they possessed at the time of designation until a final decision on their long-term management status is reached. Forty-two are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and three by the U.S. Forest Service.
The primary one under consideration for increased heli-skiing is the Palisades WSA in southern Teton County, but Cheney’s bill would also allow snowmobiling, dirt bike riding and mountain biking in the Shoal Creek WSA south of the Gros Ventre Range and Park County’s High Lakes WSA.
After the wilderness act became law, heli-skiing flights continued to increase in the Palisades until 2005, when four groups — the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Earthjustice and the Wyoming Wilderness Association — sued to limit helicopter use. An Idaho district court limited the number of flights to 60, the level permitted when the wilderness act was approved.
Cheney’s bill would set a new limit at 1,200 annual skier-days, the maximum number allowed before the lawsuit was filed.
Eighteen months ago, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association created the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, a group of diverse interests that includes county government, local landowners, recreationists, conservationists, sportsmen, ranchers and energy interests. The goal is to finalize the status of as many of the state’s WSAs as possible. Some, presumably, would be released to non-wilderness, multi-use management while others would be officially and permanently designated as wilderness.
But the method is as important as the goal. WPLI is painstakingly working to build consensus among large and diverse groups of local stakeholders, many of which rarely see eye-to-eye on land use. In those instances where the group agrees, they will then make recommendations to Congress. Sen. John Barrasso’s staff has expressed willingness to then draft and support legislation that reflects the group’s collective desire.
Cheney’s legislation, by contrast, jumps the queue. She’s proposed her own legislation to impose her own will on the landscape without consulting any of the vested stakeholders.
Smitherman said he’s been a member of the Teton WPLI since its inception. He views Cheney’s bill as primarily a “distraction” because it would only be in effect as long as the WSAs maintain that designation. If it’s ever determined to be wilderness instead of a study area, Smitherman said “the way it’s written is it would have no impact.”
But it would greatly change the area. “So there’s going to be no opportunity in any of those areas where heli-skiers operate to have any solitude, backcountry experience or wilderness experience,” Smitherman said. In doing so it would alter the wilderness characteristics under consideration and thus shift the terms of the ongoing WPLI midstream.
The WPLI’s report is likely to be submitted by spring or summer of 2018. There’s no way to know what the status of Cheney’s bill will be at that time, but it’s been sent to the House Committee on Natural Resources.
The group’s recommendations deserve the kind of study that Liz Cheney talked about earlier when she praised Trump for “return[ing] authority to our states and local communities.” Or was that just pandering; lip service about state and local control from neophyte politicians? How else can one explain not even bothering to ask county commissioners about the issue before sponsoring a bill that would make such a drastic change?
Dick Cheney made sure the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act considered potential use by extractive industries, but he also believed some land needed to be protected from harmful activities like heli-skiing. He described his approach in a 2016 Casper Star-Tribune article as “the right thing to do.” Despite the long delays for an official decision on each WSA, it is essential to future action on wilderness. The state needs to get it right, and the WPLI deserves a seat at the table.
But the scenario Smitherman rightly fears is “the chilling effect” the bill could have on committees like the WPLI. “For the most part these are private citizens who don’t have a lot of legislative experience,” Smitherman explained. “What they’re thinking is, ‘Why are we willing to spend our time collaborating in good faith, and this could all be done by a top-down approach from Congress?’”
It will be difficult, but local groups that took on the challenge of finding WSA solutions need to persevere and not give up.
Please, for the public’s sake, don’t let a representative from Virginia run you off the mountain.