Cheney proposes lifting wilderness study designations in Lincoln County

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.

ROCK SPRINGS — Some say a proposed measure to lift the wilderness study area designations in Wyoming is the right move and needs to be done as soon as possible while others say it does not give the public time to weigh in.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. introduced a bill in late September that would lift the designations in Sweetwater, Big Horn and Lincoln counties.

“I have heard from county commissioners, local officials and other impacted users requesting that the WSA designations be lifted in these counties to restore management for multiple use and sustained yield,” Cheney said in a statement.

Wilderness study areas are managed with the goal of prohibiting actions that will interfere with Congress’ decisions in either designating areas as wilderness or releasing them for nonwilderness uses, according to the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.

The bill would release all BLM and U.S. Forest Service wilderness study areas in Sweetwater, Big Horn and Lincoln counties, according to The Wilderness Society press release. Cheney’s bill would also formally remove the land with wilderness characteristics designation from Wyoming public lands.

Section 201 of Federal Land Management Policy Act requires the Bureau of Land Management to maintain, on a continuing basis, an inventory of all public lands and their resources and other values, which includes wilderness characteristics, according to the BLM.

Two Sweetwater County commissioners told the Rocket-Miner they support the measure.

Commissioner Wally Johnson said the position of the three counties has been that there should be a full release of the WSA, “and that’s what Cheney’s bill calls for.”

Commissioner John Kolb said he is “pleased as hell” that Rep. Cheney did what she said she was going to do.

“It’s an uncommon attribute for people who go to Washington to do what they say they are going to do,” he said.

As for the wilderness study areas, Kolb said they need to be dealt with.

“If this is what it takes to deal with them then it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Rock Springs resident Craig Thompson expressed frustration over Cheney’s proposed bill.

“I thought Liz Cheney would be all in for giving Wyoming people a little credibility in crafting solutions for management for BLM wilderness study areas,” he said in a statement. “Her bill flies in the face of local control. It’s all Washington driven now.”

Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, said that WSAs have protected significant tracts of public land from unnecessary development.

“It is my belief that there are places that need to be kept in a more primitive state,” he said. “Not all lands should be open to motorized travel, mining or minerals exploration.”

Baldwin said he fears that the proposed legislation is nothing more than a vehicle to open primitive areas to energy development and abuse.

“There is room in our state for hikers, hunters, all-terrain vehicles, miners, oil wells, etc. ... but when any one of these groups pushes to exclude the others, we threaten to upset the balance of this wild country we call Wyoming,” he said. “The short-term economical gain of increased access for minerals development would be offset by the longer term loss of public areas to fish, hunt, and enjoy.”

The Wilderness Society press release states that if enacted, the bill would remove existing protections on more than 400,000 acres of hunting and recreational areas.

National Outdoor Leadership School Stewardship and Sustainability Director Aaron Bannon told the Rocket-Miner that he is concerned about the future of wilderness study areas. NOLS teaches wilderness and leadership skills in classrooms and on expeditions to places like the Red Desert.

The legislation would add on to the abundance of oil and gas lease sales that are happening in the northern Red Desert, Bannon said.

The wilderness study areas can only be released or designated as a wilderness through an act of Congress. However, the lands surrounding these WSAs are under revision through the Rock Springs resource management plan, Wyoming Wildlife Federation Field Director Joy Bannon said.

“There are many wilderness study areas in these counties, some of which are already involved in a BLM management plan revision,” she said. “Let’s let the process on revising the Rock Springs resource management plan continue, scheduled for completion in the spring of 2019, before moving forward with a federal bill that would use a blanket management approach versus a case-by-case analysis approach.”

Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, said he agreed, adding that introducing the legislation is a “little premature.”

There are groups in the process of working on the management study plan right now. Let that process continue “then see what needs to be done,” Hastert said.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 directed the BLM to identify lands suitable for preservation within the wilderness areas, according to a 2018 Sweetwater County memo to residents.

In 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act was enacted. It mandated that within 15 years the BLM would inventory and evaluate its lands for wilderness suitability. Based on the review, the Department of the Secretary of the Interior would forward the recommendations to the president, according to the 1991 study. The report identified 42 study areas across the state and concluded that 240,364 acres be designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System and 337,140 acres be released from the study for uses other than wilderness. In Sweetwater County, the report proposed that Devil’s Playground, Twin Buttes and Oregon Buttes WSAs be recommended in its entirety for wilderness designation; Buffalo Hump, Sand Dunes, Honeycomb Buttes and Adobe Town be partially recommended for the designation; and Whitehorse Creek, Alkali Draw, South Pinnacles, Alkali Basin/East Sand Dunes and Red Lake be dropped from consideration.

“I think they’ve done a good job in identifying those areas that deserve to be designated as wilderness,” Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, said.

Five legislators, including Hastert, signed a letter to Cheney in February 2018 requesting that she not push legislation to release the WSAs or recommend management for them without hearing back from residents, the Rocket-Miner reported.

Commissioners also received public comments from different sides at their March 6 meeting. They voted 3-2 in favor of a full release of the county’s wilderness study areas at the same meeting.

Paxton said it is time to release the WSAs. He said there’s been plenty of opportunities for public comment regarding what areas need to be released or areas that need the designation.

“I’m glad to see that we’re moving ahead with it,” he added. “I’m fully supportive of it.”

Hastert disagreed, saying that the public should be given another chance to comment.

“It looks to me like that it kind of sidesteps the public comments aspects of this,” he said. “I don’t think that we should ever bypass public comment periods.”

When asked what the county would do if Congress votes to lift the wilderness study areas, Kolb said that if and when it happens there will be a conversation on what to do next.

“I think it’s fairly straightforward,” he said. “We need local control. This is a long running issue that people before me have dealt with and people after me will deal with. We’ve got to figure out another methodology of coming to a consensus.”

Barry Reiswig of Wyoming Back Country Horsemen said he thinks the bill is dead on arrival because Cheney “failed to engage a diversity of Wyoming sportsmen.”

“This legislation is composed of one-sided ideas, has ignited controversy, and would spoil too many of Wyoming’s backcountry hunting and camping destinations,” he added.

Bannon said he hopes people in Wyoming will stand up for its national conservation lands and ask for lasting protection.

Baldwin said before any group gets steamrolled by another, a discussion on the WSAs needs to take place.

“Local input does not mean absolute local control by any single interest group,” he said. “Local input means thoughtful discussion by local citizens in a complete process to determine the most appropriate course of action.”