Drake: We can’t let Wyoming’s foxes run the NEPA’s henhouse


A move to give the state of Wyoming primacy over assessing the environmental impacts of projects on federal lands is a perfect storm of terrible ideas.

When I read about this proposal on WyoFile, I couldn’t believe it was a serious concept. I still can’t.

Except it is … the Wyoming Legislature is going to study it during the interim. Incredulous, I kept following the story, waiting for a punchline that never came.

This is real. Gov. Mark Gordon said he has already discussed with the Interior Department the idea of Wyoming having a major authoritative role in the high-stakes examination of potential impacts of projects such as oil and gas drilling in the state.

Sure, why not? It’s not as if any parties except the state of Wyoming have a stake in the federal lands within its borders.

The only other interested body who is entitled to be concerned about turning over these public land decisions to the whims of state officials and regulators is every single citizen of the United States.

That includes residents of Wyoming whose minds have been blown by the proposal, like Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter Director Connie Wilbert.

She told WyoFile reporter Angus Thuermer she is “shocked, stunned and startled” to see the issue is a top priority for the Joint Interim Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee.

The whole thing made me stressed, saddened and spooked. Especially that last one.

Not so our new governor. He told WyoFile that what he proposed to acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt would simply speed up the National Environmental Policy Act review process — obviously to a pace Wyoming would naturally find more acceptable.

“It doesn’t diminish the result,” he said. “We’re really trying to be efficient. I think that’s a good thing for the Wyoming people.”

So do a long line of others in the state, including some lawmakers, energy companies and business developers who believe it’s a crime that federal environmental regulations stand in the way of letting “free enterprise” do whatever it wants.

They would be happy to see Wyoming grease the skids and run roughshod over NEPA requirements if it means more development and more severance tax revenue for the state.

Many of the same public and private sector interests — though to his credit not Gov. Gordon — were behind the latest push for Wyoming to seize management and/or ownership of all federal lands within the state. That movement has quieted in the face of fierce popular opposition from many sectors, including sportsmen, the outdoor industry, conservationists, and the majority of Wyoming residents, but if you think it’s gone away you’ve got your head in the sand. To “work to transfer the administration of public lands to the States” remains an official resolution of the Wyoming Republican party.

Never mind that managing the vast tracts of federal lands in the state would be a logistical nightmare that would bankrupt Wyoming. Unless, of course, state government would start selling off those precious resources to the highest bidder, which would naturally be energy companies.

When that effort began to tank, its proponents turned to the alternative now on the Minerals Committee’s radar. In their eyes the next best thing to owning federal lands and selling them off at a huge profit is apparently managing the intricate process of green-lighting and setting the terms of development on the people’s property.

Talk about overreach. Gordon explained to WyoFile about how the state and the Interior Department would sign a memorandum of understanding so the state could “organize the NEPA effort and kind of walk through it and deliver [results]” to a federal agency.

So the state would decide on each project what the NEPA process consists of, turn in its findings and hope that the feds are satisfied and will craft a record of decision that meets their wishes. Great for Wyoming, but definitely not the process that was intended under NEPA to make certain that federal lands will be maintained for future generations.

Another part of the perfect storm of bad ideas was the assertion that Wyoming could accomplish its hypothetical new responsibilities without investing much.

Gordon said a state office devoted to NEPA would likely have only a few employees and a small budget. Those workers would also have to interact with counties that might also take on some aspects of the NEPA process, the governor speculated.

It’s not bad enough that state government wants to control the environmental protection process — it also wants the federal government to hand off some of its duties to Wyoming counties.

Some counties are relishing that idea, too.

Legislative Management Council members determining interim topics for committees at the end of the session noted that Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman also talked about the idea with Interior Secretary Bernhardt.

Here’s something about the NEPA process that Gordon and other officials in the state don’t seem to grasp: It takes time. And that’s a good thing. While some environmental reviews may seem excessively long, what matters for the entire nation in the end is if the feds get it right.

A winter use plan and environmental impact statement to allow continued snowmobile and snowcoach travel in Yellowstone National Park that began in 2000, for example, wasn’t completed until 2013.

Along the way, officials had to wade through more than a million public comments, have biologists study the impact on wildlife, look at air and noise impacts and myriad other issues. There were eight EIS’s written and at least five separate federal court decisions.

Proponents of the state managing such a vital process may use that conglomeration of information to say that it was too cumbersome and a failure.

But former Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk told Thuermer that he can’t imagine turning the kind of exhaustive study necessary for a proper federal Record of Decision over to Wyoming.

If Wyoming thinks it already takes too long to get an oil well approved or a roadless area decision, wait until it sees how many court challenges arise if they get primacy over NEPA reviews.

States already have a role in the NEPA process. As key stakeholders, comments and other input from states carry real weight. State agencies, such as Game and Fish, often provide critical data that shapes the outcome. They don’t need to be put in charge.

Instead of spending the next nine months creating a framework to try to get the Interior Department to see things the state of Wyoming’s way, Gordon and the Legislature could use the time much more productively if they began crafting a state environmental policy.

Having such a measure on the books, as many states do, would enhance the state’s ability to participate in the existing process.

It could, for example, qualify Wyoming to join the feds on a project as a co-lead, as Montana did when Yellowstone developed the park’s bison management policy.

That may not offer the same kind of ideological drama as seizing control from the feds, but at least it retains the baby while cleaning the bathwater.   

If this proposal goes any further and is actually considered by lawmakers next January, bring the smelling salts. I’ll need them. In fact, order a big supply for the rest of the country.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Casper.

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