The Sand Dunes BLM Wilderness Study Area covers more than 26,000 acres near the Boars Tusk in Sweetwater County, one of two key counties that chose not to participate in the public lands initiative. The BLM in 1991 recommended 21,000 acres be permanently protected as wilderness and off-limits to motorized travel and mineral development. (COURTESY PHOTO / BLM)
In 2015, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association launched the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative with a simple, but time-tested premise: Wyoming residents, working together in good faith, could find common ground to help resolve the status of Wyoming’s last remaining Wilderness Study Areas.
It was, and is, the right idea. Having local people from all backgrounds develop real solutions by working together? This is the Wyoming way.
Over the past two and half years, The Wilderness Society and many conservation, sportsmen, and recreation partners have participated in good faith in the process. We have spent countless hours analyzing maps, negotiating, and searching for pragmatic compromises.
Now, despite these efforts, the initiative is showing some signs of stress because of the heavy-handed meddling by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and a lack of willingness by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association to call her on it.
When the initiative was established, the entire Wyoming Congressional delegation pledged to support it. This support was extremely helpful in persuading stakeholders that the initiative would be taken seriously by Congress. The hope was that pragmatic bottom-up negotiations could one day become federal legislation and be passed into law.
Since then, Rep. Cheney was elected and has gone her own direction. Her new top-down approach has jeopardized local ground-up progress and confused and stymied the efforts of Wyomingites across the state.
It began last December when Rep. Cheney caught many off-guard when she introduced — with little to no consultation with local stakeholders — legislation affecting the management of three wilderness study areas. The areas affected are under discussion by three different stakeholder-based local advisory committees. None of these hard-working citizens was consulted before Rep. Cheney introduced her bill.
Since then, Rep. Cheney announced plans to introduce comprehensive legislation eliminating numerous wilderness study areas across the state. Her unrealistic and erratic timeline and willingness to undercut local discussion has sent a confusing message across Wyoming that collaboration and working together are no longer needed. Why would locals invest in the time-consuming process of seeking compromise when Wyoming’s sole representative is planning to circumvent those efforts?
Because of that, Rep. Cheney’s involvement has had a chilling effect on local discussions. Some stakeholders have disengaged because of their frustration while others have refused to collaborate in good faith.
Despite this, the WCCA has tried to minimize the impacts of Rep. Cheney’s intentions instead of respectfully asking her to stand down.
Many interests remain committed to the success of the WPLI, including conservation, but we can’t do it alone. By remaining silent, the county commissioners association will continue to provide Rep. Cheney a license to disrupt this process with one hand, while allowing her to introduce ill-conceived and top-down legislation with the other.
Wyoming county commissioners and the WCCA can still salvage this initiative by strongly rejecting Rep. Cheney’s meddling and immediately rejecting proposals that lack sufficient stakeholder support.
The Wyoming way works as long as we all commit, and stay committed, to pragmatic compromise and consensus. Following the Cheney way could sink this historic initiative and continue a political stalemate that has existed for decades on Wyoming’s public lands. That would be a terribly unfortunate outcome for everyone involved.
Dan Smitherman is a retired Marine Corps Officer and former outfitter who lives in Bondurant where he works for The Wilderness Society.