The Honeycomb Buttes Wilderness Study Area near South Pass is "one of the best examples of badlands topography in Wyoming," the BLM says. Part of it lies in Fremont County, but the bulk is in Sweetwater County. (BLM)

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) sponsored BLM wilderness legislation, the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative Act of 2021, which a Senate committee considered last week. The legislation releases far more land from Wilderness Study Area status than it protects.

Opinion

The legislation is the product of a controversial process intended to provide local recommendations about what should be done with Wyoming’s 758,044 Wilderness Study Area acres. A Wilderness Study Area classification offers what are intended to be temporary protections for wilderness-quality land.

Barrasso’s bill would establish five new BLM Wilderness areas. They are a 4,543-acre Encampment River Canyon Wilderness; 1,110-acre Prospect Mountain Wilderness; 6,216-acre Bobcat Draw Wilderness and another 8,512 acres by creating an Upper and Lower Sweetwater Canyon Wilderness. Altogether the five areas total a paltry 20,381 acres.

The bill designates 27,211 acres as Special Management Areas. These include the Bennett Mountains Special Management Area, Black Cat Special Management Area, Sweetwater Rocks Special Management Area, and Cedar Mountain Special Management Area. In addition, the legislation designates the Fortification Creek Management Area, North Fork Management Area and Fraker Mountain Management Area. It also creates a Dubois Badlands National Conservation Area and Dubois Badlands Motorized Recreation Area.

Among other things, Special Management Area status prohibits new roads, but does not prohibit new oil and gas leases accessible only by directional drilling outside of the management areas.

The bill would release 127,461 acres of Wilderness Study Area lands for multiple uses.

The Dubois Badlands WSA would be divided by a fence into the Dubois Motorized Recreation Area and Dubois National Conservation Area.

There are 758,044 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in Wyoming, so Sen. Barrasso’s bill would only address a fraction of the lands that the 1964 Wilderness Act could protect. As long as they remain WSAs they are in effect protected as wilderness.

The one thing I object to about Barrasso’s legislation, besides the fact that it doesn’t designate nearly enough wilderness, is his assertion that: “It is my firm belief that it is not Washington, but the people of Wyoming, who should make the decision about how to treat these lands.”

I understand that Barrasso is playing to his audience, but these lands are owned by all Americans, not under Wyoming residents’ exclusive jurisdiction.

Rather than expressing a parochial perspective, I wish Sen. Barrasso were saying that the people in Wyoming are fortunate to have millions of acres of federal lands that they get to enjoy that are paid for and supported by all taxpayers across the country.

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including three on Yellowstone and two others on national parks as foundational to conservation, including "Protecting the Wild."

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  1. WYOMING COUNTIES ARE NOW EMPOWERED: Wyoming counties participate as a legitimate governmental entity that have empowered themselves in order to offset the effect of the large masses of the American people unduly influencing decisions about Federal land use planning in Wyoming. When the WSAs were nominated, the Wyoming counties did not have a seat at the table but that has all changed since then. Most Wyoming counties have adopted land use plans for State and Federal lands in order to solidify their legal standings. Advocacy groups and out of state citizens do not have the authority to legislate rules and regulations concerning land use in Wyoming. The new reality is that the Wyoming people acting through their County Commissioners and elected Congressional delegates will rigorously defend their right to be involved in Federal land use planning in Wyoming on the same level as the State and Federal government entities participate.

    An example of county involvement from Idaho. Owyhee County, Idaho has many recreationalists from Boise that utilize the Federal lands in Owyhee County for off road vehicles. Enough so, that the lack of travel management was a problem. As a result, Owyhee County developed a ” travel management plan for Federal lands ” and submitted to the BLM for consideration. The BLM embraced the County plan and adopted it through the normal public comment process.

    Owyhee County also developed their own proposal for a predatory birds/raptors sanctuary along the Owyhee River which better represented local input and knowledge. Again, the local plan was embraced due to its practicality and knowledge gained from local input.

    Today, the BLM and USFS send letters to the Counties and State of Wyoming upon initiating Forest Plan revisions and Resource Management revisions. These letters solicit the involvement of the State and Counties as ” cooperating agencies with special expertise “. By replying to the invitation to be an cooperating agency the State and Counties participate during the scoping phase of the land use plans. Advocacy groups and non-governmental entities can not participate at this time. Not only do the County Commissioners have the right to participate as a cooperating agency but any duly elected board with taxing and mill levee authority can participate. Therefore, the Hot Springs Conservation District participated as a cooperating agency in the last revision of the Worland District BLM RMP.

    County land use plans for State and Federal lands were oftentimes funded by the Governor’s Natural Resource Policy Fund as the legislature approved. This effort has resulted in the Wyoming counties being empowered and having a seat at the table. You can expect the Wyoming counties to be actively involved in future land use decisions on State and Federal lands; and, the influence of advocacy groups and out of state citizens will be greatly reduced. That is the new normal.

  2. When I lived in Cowboy land I thought Barrasso was a good fit. Knowledge vs Obamacare. I follow George W on his assessment today. Perhaps he enjoys DC too much like the Cheney’s and needs to come home and practice orthopedics again? Term limits are not all bad.

  3. The energy sector has been trying for years to get their hands on public lands, it is always a fight to shut them down. The Jonah field used to be a designated winter feed ground for deer antelope elk and moose, plus all the wild birds that moved in until they opened it up to the gas and oil industry. Now thousands of acres are un huntable, restricted access to the general public not to mention the huge loss of wildlife that roamed here protected in the wintertime. this isn’t the only place that came under permanent change for the energy sector. Pinedale, the Hoback, the sand dunes, Baggs, list goes on and on. Existing landowner’s politicians and energy company’s logging companies and the billionaires that have bought up huge amounts of Wyoming land are the only ones to benefit from these changes. Barrasso knows this along with the current commissioners, so everyone needs to say NO to these changes or Wyoming will be gone for good

    1. A lot of truth in your comments. The State of Wyoming is largely funded by taxes on extractive industries such as oil and gas, coal, uranium, trona, bentonite, gypsum, and limestone. Unfortunately, we don’t have another horse to ride; and therefore, the State of Wyoming promotes almost any extractive industry that generates tax revenue for Cheyenne. The effects you noted are a result of the thirst for energy and and tax revenue. No end in sight. And the oil and gas projects are now exceeding hundreds of thousands of acres and in the Douglas area, over a million acres. Its a damned if you do and damned if you don’t scenario. And the alternative is to buy oi and gas from the Saudis, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela -terrible alternatives. And the more people we allow into the country, the more demand for oil and gas, coal, uranium, etc. Very, very frustrating with no relief in sight.

  4. If Senator John Barrasso means what he says (and, of course, he doesn’t) he should stop accepting huge cash contributions from deep pocketed corporations represented in Washington D.C. by armies of fossil fuel industry lobbyists.