U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s spring deadline to resolve the fate of 13 federal wilderness study areas in Sweetwater County doesn’t give enough time to properly examine the issue, the county’s commission chairman said last week.
County officials are racing to assemble management recommendations for 252,074 federal acres by the end of the month for inclusion in Cheney’s forthcoming bill — a timeline that’s also been criticized by the region’s legislators. Sweetwater County chose not to engage its citizens in the years-old statewide review known as the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, so has just a few weeks to propose what parts of 13 Bureau of Land Management tracts should be preserved.
“Certainly, it is not enough time to fully vet the issue,” Sweetwater County Commission Chairman Reid West, a Democrat, told WyoFile on Wednesday. “But I don’t know what choice we have.”
Sweetwater opted out of the statewide initiative in February 2016 for three reasons: because the BLM hadn’t completed an area resource plan, because of an “unpredictable” Washington political climate, and because WPLI was taking on “too broad of a scope.”
The WPLI goal proposed county-by-county recommendations by this summer on management of more than 750,000 acres of BLM and U.S. Forest Service wilderness study areas — recommendations that would be fashioned into a single federal bill.
But Cheney told county commissioners late last year she would introduce her own bill this spring to strip protection from 337,140 of the 577,504 BLM study acres in the state. She also proposed the Forest Service resolve management of three wilderness study lands within 90 days. Permanent wilderness designation by Congress would conserve the natural characteristics of the areas but preclude oil and gas development, logging, motorized travel, among other things.
Cheney has since indicated she would work with counties to include their recommendations if made this spring, sending them scrambling to meet an end-of-month deadline.
That gambit prompted five Sweetwater county state legislators to ask Cheney to back off. “Please do not release these [Sweetwater] areas or recommend management for them without a meaningful public process,” wrote Sens. John Hastert (D, Green River) and Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D, Rock Springs) and Reps. John Freeman (D, Green River), JoAnn Dayton (D, Rock Springs) and Stan Blake (D, Green River). (See below.)
“The most likely path to successful public lands legislation includes a broad spectrum of stakeholders and encourages transparency and public involvement,” they wrote. “WPLI outlined this type of path, but a collaborative process can also be organized outside of WPLI. Our constituents would like to be involved in a collaborative process — if not this year, then sometime in the future… Please do not preclude that possibility by releasing our WSAs now, without our local involvement.”
Behind the 8-ball
Cheney’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but under the bill she outlined to commissioners, some 146,942 acres in BLM wilderness study areas in Sweetwater County would be managed for multiple use, allowing motorized recreation, energy development, road building and other forms of industrialization. Some of them include “remarkable badlands, like Adobe Town, vast sand dunes and towering buttes,” the legislators wrote Cheney.
The unique landscape is a draw, they said. “Some of these, with protective designations, could boost economic development opportunities for our area through increased tourism.”
Commission chairman West said he feels it’s necessary to make a recommendation to Cheney by the end of March. “We’ve been put in a position that the county needs to speak as a body in regards to Rep. Cheney’s plan to introduce a bill,” he said. To that end, the county has scheduled a public hearing Tuesday.
The legislators realize the time it should take to craft a recommendation, West said. “I think they understand for us to go through that process is a lengthy process,” he said. “Because we haven’t been a part of the WPLI … it puts us in kind of [a position of] making an expedited decision.”
For Sen. Anselmi-Dalton, the wilderness study issue “should be vetted in the usual way,” she told WyoFile in an email. She called the new timeline “too quick to make the public aware.”
Rep. Blake said the Sweetwater process needs “at least a couple more months.” Adobe Town, Oregon Buttes and the Sand Dunes wilderness study tracts “need to be protected from oil and gas development,” he said in an interview. “Don’t just pull them out of WSA [status] for the sake of oil and gas.”
Based on a 27-year-old review, Cheney’s bill would allow development across 5,850 acres in Sand Dunes and 74,790 acres in Adobe Town. That 1992 BLM review recommended releasing 58 percent of its wilderness study areas in Wyoming for multiple use but protecting the balance. Cheney’s outline of her bill does not mention any such protections.
One member of the public deeply engaged in public lands thinks Sweetwater should stick to its original position — that the BLM resource plan first be completed. “I think it’s premature to take a position on the wilderness study areas until the public has a chance to read and comment on the resource management plan,” said Joshua Coursey, a Green River resident and co-founder of Muley Fanatic Foundation. “There’s already a process that’s been started,” and wilderness study area decisions need to emerge from that.
“So many stakeholders have come to the table in the last five years [on the resource management plan that] to not let it reach fruition is just bad business.”
One conservation group outlined what’s at risk. “These are the 13 wonders of Sweetwater County,” Shaleas Harrison, policy associate and organizer with the Wyoming Wilderness Association, wrote supporters. “They are the only roadless areas left in Sweetwater County and account for less than 4 percent of land in the county. If the county commissioners want to determine management of these areas, they need to give the public a fair chance to participate.”
Multiple use advocates believe otherwise, as articulated by Sweetwater commissioner Wally Johnson. The Green River Star recently quoted him criticizing some BLM activities.
“I’ve said many times to the BLM ‘this land is our land and they are nothing more than an administrator of our lands and they should listen to us;’ and they’re not,” the paper quoted him saying. He was referring to the removal of juniper trees on Little Mountain to improve greater sage grouse habitat. Johnson thought the agency should be cutting other beetle-killed trees instead.
“We cannot stand idly by and let them do whatever they want to do with these lands,” the paper quoted him saying.