The Sweetwater Canyon Wilderness Study Area. (Bob Wick/BLM)

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s proposed legislation to protect 20,381 acres of wilderness in four Wyoming counties disappoints conservationists who say its official designation of about 14% of eligible areas it addresses is flawed.

The Republican’s Wyoming Public Lands Initiative Act of 2021 would designate five wilderness areas in Carbon, Fremont, Washakie and Big Horn counties. It would release 99,750 acres of protected Wilderness Study Area acres for multiple uses like logging and oil and gas development. 

The measure also would create three special management areas covering 27,711 acres. Regulations there would limit major development but allow some activities that otherwise would be excluded in wilderness areas.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso in 2009 celebrates a path built in Grand Teton National Park. (Tim Young/Wyoming Pathways)

The measure falls short, conservationists said, vowing to oppose its passage. “We are committed that a bill that’s bad for Wyoming is opposed and rejected,” said Julia Stuble, Wyoming public lands and energy associate for The Wilderness Society.

If passed, the measure would expand wilderness protections in the state for the first time since 1984 when U.S. Sens. Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop and U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney — all Republicans — cosponsored the Wyoming Wilderness Act which added 880,000 acres to the wilderness system.

All told, Barrasso’s measure addresses 147,842 acres of wilderness study areas on Bureau of Land Management land in seven Wyoming counties, according to WyoFile calculations. Some 32% of the study areas considered in the bill would be protected or somewhat protected from multiple-use development.

Barrasso’s bill builds on the contentious Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, a county-by-county effort launched by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association in 2015. WPLI sought to identify which of Wyoming’s 758,044 federal Wilderness Study Area acres should be forever protected.

The legislation would address about 20% of Wyoming’s WSA acreage. Wilderness designation preserves wild lands in their natural condition where motorized and mechanized travel are barred and where there is no permanent human occupation or structures.

Two special rivers

Barasso’s bill would create Prospect Mountain and Encampment River wilderness areas in Carbon County, covering 1,110 and 4,543 acres respectively. It would establish the Upper and Lower Sweetwater Canyon wilderness areas in Fremont County across 8,512 acres.

The bill would bifurcate the Bobcat Draw Wilderness Study Area in Washakie and Big Horn counties, designating 6,216 acres as wilderness and releasing 7,692 for multiple use.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s wilderness bill covers wilderness study areas in seven Wyoming counties. (U.S. Sen. John Barrasso)

In addition to the counties in which new wilderness areas would be created, the bill covers BLM study areas in Campbell, Johnson and Natrona counties.

The release of 127,461 acres of wilderness study lands for multiple use or other non-wilderness activities troubles conservationists. 

Those landscapes have been protected for decades as wilderness study areas. 

Conservationists have criticized the WPLI process saying that only a single county — Carbon — came to a valid conclusion under WPLI ground rules requiring a consensus from a diverse committee of stakeholders.

“We think the process behind this bill was flawed,” Stuble said. Public comment was disregarded, people were shut out of the process and there was no consultation with the Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho tribes or other indigenous groups whose native lands are affected, she said.

Wyoming Rep. Andi Clifford (D-Riverton), a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said the Fremont County WPLI group backpedaled on the agreement to consult with Native Americans before finalizing its recommendation.

“It is extremely troublesome that this [recommendation] would now serve as the basis for federal legislation,” she said in a statement.

The Wyoming Wilderness Association also “strongly opposes” the bill, Associate Director Peggie dePasquale said in an email. “The outcome of 90% loss of wilderness-level protection is not the result of a functional collaborative process, and certainly does not represent a balanced compromise,” she wrote.

Removing ‘federal roadblocks’

Barrasso hailed the 62-page measure that he introduced May 20 as one that would “remove federal roadblocks that have stalled the future of wilderness lands in Wyoming” and “locked up” wilderness lands for more than 30 years.

“Locally driven processes like the WPLI give people in Wyoming the best chance to decide how to treat these lands,” Barrasso said in a statement. “This bill strikes a balance between protecting the places people in Wyoming love while expanding multiple-use areas that our state relies on.”

A Trout Unlimited manager, the county commissioners’ association and some individual commissioners endorsed Barrasso’s proposed act, which the senator unveiled some two years after the WPLI concluded. Trout Unlimited North Platte River Water Project Manager Jeff Streeter said in a statement last month his group looks forward to working with Barrasso on the bill.

Fremont Public Lands Chair Doug Thompson countered criticism of the WPLI process. “Local citizen committee members sought and considered public input, shared their thoughts and desires in a respectful forum, and made every effort to reach consensus,” he said in a statement endorsing the measure.

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WPLI committee members “dedicated countless hours,” to reach “detailed and thoughtful proposals,” Wyoming County Commissioners Association Executive Director Jerimiah Rieman said in a statement.

While Barrasso’s bill might reflect the desires some in Wyoming have for management of federal land that belongs to all Americans, debate in Congress, should it occur, would invite the views of all 3,143 counties in the U.S.

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Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at or (307)...

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  1. It’s funny that the Ferris Mountains are a WSA. There used to be a gold mining road that went up into them along Cherry Creek. There was also some gold mining on the south side of the mountain too, in the hogbacks.
    There was a road that ran around the base to the south (until certain parties burnt out the bridges). There also was a microwave reflector panel on the west end of the mountains up through the 90s when the area began to get fiber. The other thing that is odd is all the ranching homesteads that were around the base of the mountain, since the early 1900s.

    The area has not been natural, or untouched within the lifespan of the BLM… Yet out of state interests have locked them up, and made life hell for the remaining ranchers. This land grab, and continual punishment of us in flyover country needs to stop. There is nothing unique about the Ferris Mountains, however they will forever remain wild due to their ruggedness where it counts, whether or not some out of state “feel good” legislator wants to deem them so.

  2. STICK WITH WHAT’S POSSIBLE: Barrasso’s bill represents what’s politically possible – that is – its achievable. Going for too much would fail and any less would likely have problems. Its a compromise that has a good chance in congress. If the wilderness advocacy groups strongly oppose this legislation they could end up with nothing. There will be more chances for Wyoming wilderness in the future – be patient – this is a step forward.

  3. I have spent countless hours hiking, exploring, and enjoying public lands within Wilderness Study Areas, particularly in Sweetwater and Fremont Counties. At no point did I come across a fence or gate. Nobody told me I had to leave. There was not one ‘no trespassing’ sign posted. So, when John Barrasso says the land is “locked up”, he’s not talking about to you and me.

    And, regarding input on management – these are federal public lands that belong to every American. They can’t be managed to with only Wyoming in mind.

  4. I hope this bill can be defeated, it would be a huge loss of our State’s few remaining public wild lands. Wilderness is compatible with multiple use, just not motorized activities; hiking, horseback riding, fishing , hunting, are permitted. Just 3% of Wyoming is designated as Wilderness, we can do far better than Barasso’s bill.

  5. Thrilled that the Palisafes WSA southwest of Jackson continues to be open to modest non-wilderness use. As are most people who visit the area. The conservationists have run amok in Teton County and people are sick of it.

    1. Thank you Angus..I know some well intentioned folks may have worked on Barrasso/ County Commissioners bill but they missed the mark by thousands of acres of land that deserves wilderness protection.
      This bill doesn’t even come close to what the BLM begrudgingly reccomended for wilderness status, which would have been a good starting point even though they did not reccomend all that deserved protection. Start over, this bill should not even be considered.