In 2015, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association convened the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative to determine whether a small fraction of public lands possessing wilderness qualities would be protected or released for industrial use. Conservationists were initially cautious, noting that the majority of the landowners — all those Americans living outside of Wyoming — would be excluded from the process. But they engaged nonetheless, a decision some now regret as the process breaks down and county commissioners thwart continued protection of rare wildlands.
Earlier that year, WCCA Director Pete Obermueller testified before a congressional hearing organized by the Federal Land Action Group, self-styled as “a congressional team that will develop a legislative framework for transferring public lands to local ownership and control.” That should have been the first clue. Obermueller’s testimony characterized WPLI this way: “The second effort is focused on making long-term, locally driven decisions about Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas. … These temporary designations have been managed as de facto wilderness for decades awaiting congressional action on a final determination.”
A second clue was that WPLI was modeled after the Utah Public Lands Initiative, widely criticized (and ultimately abandoned) for including a variety of poison-pill attacks against bedrock environmental safeguards.
Wilderness Study Areas are among the most protected public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Administratively set aside to protect wilderness characteristics, they await an act of Congress to designate the area as officially “Wilderness” or alter or withdraw their protections. WSAs are closed to oil and gas leasing (although drilling is “grandfathered in” on lands leased prior to WSA designation), and they are also closed to road building, gravel pits, and often to motor-vehicle travel. These lands typically remain open to livestock grazing, though WSAs are supposed to be managed to a ‘non-impairment’ standard pending Congressional action.
Current wilderness study areas total only 3.3% (577,504 acres) of Wyoming’s 17.5 million acres of BLM land. These WSAs are a treasure beyond price. Mark Jenkins, National Geographic writer and author of the book A Man’s Life, wrote, “there is no place like Wyoming. Wyoming’s greatest resource is its wildness, in particular, designated wilderness as part of the National Wilderness Preservation Systems and the wilderness study areas. For example, the Red Desert in southwest Wyoming contains some of the rarest and most extraordinary features in the world.” Although 96.7 percent of BLM lands in Wyoming are already available to industrial uses, protecting even this tiny fraction of WSAs remains contentious.
For example, the McCullough Peaks, an area of fragile and spectacular badlands just east of Cody became a major flashpoint for the Park County WPLI committee. Of the 74,000 acres that possess wilderness character in the McCullough Peaks, only 25,210 acres within the McCullough Peaks WSA have protections today. Yet the Park County Commissioners gave the stakeholder committee explicit instructions that they could not consider conservation measures for lands outside the WSAs. In the absence of flexibility, negotiations broke down. Observed one conservation representative, “we’re disappointed to report that we can’t support a Wyoming county’s proposal for critical wild lands east of Yellowstone, because last night’s rushed, forced vote on the proposal doesn’t respect the collaborative, grassroots approach we committed to when we signed on to work with this county in 2016.”
In Johnson County, east of the Big Horn Mountains, county commissioners also refused to examine lands outside WSA boundaries as conservation possibilities, and additionally adopted a supermajority voting system so that conservationists could be out-voted, triggering the resignation of a key conservation representative.
During her 2016 campaign, then-candidate Liz Cheney responded to a sportsmens’ survey as follows: “I applaud the county commissioners for undertaking the WPLA [sic] and making the process as collaborative and inclusive as possible. I will monitor the process and look forward to being the House sponsor of the legislative recommendations from the county commissioners through the WPLI.”
But once elected to the U.S. House, Rep. Cheney changed course and sought to dictate the outcome through top-down legislation.
When the Teton County WPLI process started hitting roadblocks over whether motorized uses should be allowed in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, south of Jackson on the Idaho border, mountain bikers and snowmobilers began lobbying Rep. Cheney to allow unlimited snowmobiling, mountain biking, heliskiing, and other activities incompatible with wilderness management. In December of 2017, Rep. Cheney introduced a bill to make it so.
Nonetheless, negotiations continue in Teton County. “The Teton County Comprehensive Plan is focused on protection of the ecosystem, which is a tremendously visionary statement,” said Bruce Hayse, a medical doctor representing the general public on the Teton County WPLI committee. But for the WPLI process, “the whole focus has been on everybody getting to use their mechanical and motorized toys, which is not compatible with protection of the ecosystem,” Hayse said. “This process has been all about people scrambling to divide up the recreational pie, and there’s no large-scale thinking at all.”
Then, in early 2018, Rep. Cheney began drafting legislation that would strip BLM Wilderness Study Areas in the state of WSA protections if Congress doesn’t formally designate them Wilderness by 2018, which would release the lands to commercial and industrial uses.
Park County Commissioner Tim French, apparently frustrated by Cheney’s political meddling in the midst of the negotiations, captured the sentiments of many Wyoming residents. “A couple things chap my hide on this,” he said. “I think the process should be allowed to play out before Rep. Cheney does her thing.”
Lincoln and Sweetwater Counties, which opted out of the WPLI process and declined to convene a citizen committee, then jumped in to support the Cheney WSA-release bill. Sweetwater County encompasses more than half the WSA acreage in Wyoming, including crown jewel Red Desert landscapes like Adobe Town. Five state legislators from Sweetwater County asked Cheney politely to back off, but the county commissioners voted 3-2 to endorse the release of all WSAs from protection. Rep. Cheney signaled she will advance a bill endorsing the commissioners’ no-wilderness requests even without a WPLI process.
The last Wyoming wilderness bill was passed in 1984. This bill added 880,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, designated two Wilderness Study Areas (Beartooth High Lakes and the Palisades), and did not release a single acre of Wilderness Study Area from interim protections. Then, too, there were anti-wilderness interests and industrial user groups dead-set against the protection of a single acre more in restrictive wilderness status. Said Rep. Dick Cheney , “There is a general feeling in my state that much as we would like the economic benefits from the energy resources in the Washakie, we’d like even more to save a few acres and declare them off-limits — Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and the wilderness areas around the parks, which account for less than 8 percent of the state. Wilderness areas should be the last places we look for energy.”
If only Rep. Liz Cheney, his daughter, who grew up in Virginia, would listen to those few words of wisdom. She apparently has much to learn about conservation in Wyoming.
The only thing this county-driven wilderness repeal process seems to be achieving is to unite conservationists against it. In the meanwhile, keeping Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas intact may be the best outcome that Wyoming conservationists could have hoped for.