ROCK SPRINGS—It’s hard to hear above the din in the hotel ballroom where hundreds of people have gathered to learn about the Bureau of Land Management’s draft plan for 3.6 million acres of southwest Wyoming.
Over by the maps displaying special land designation proposals, a gray haired woman pops forward with a question for BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner Lauren Hazzard: “Are you going to tell me where I can walk?” she asks.
“You can walk anywhere,” Hazzard responds.
“Are you going to tell me where I can’t drive?” the woman asks. The BLM’s preferred alternative envisions a few minor motorized closures, Hazzard tells her — and those are in places where resource damage has occurred. Hazzard gives an example of vehicle-accessible petroglyphs in the Red Desert that have been vandalized. The BLM would close a couple miles of that road under its preferred alternative, but people could still walk or cycle to them.
The woman softens her tone. “I can’t argue that,” she says, conceding that the vandalism there is extensive.
The exchange illustrates the depth of concern in this community over what will happen to outdoor recreation access under the BLM’s resource management plan update. It also underscores users’ struggles to understand the implications of a 1,300-page, acronym-heavy document rife with technical language — which has been widely misinterpreted thanks in part to a mistake the BLM inadvertently left in.
The agency released its draft environmental impact statement in August for its revised Rock Springs field office Resource Management Plan, a document that was 12 years in the making. The agency’s “preferred alternative” prioritizes conservation for the management of some 3.6 million acres of federal public lands in Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta, Sublette and Fremont counties. The choice has caused an uproar among Wyoming politicians and residents of towns like Rock Springs, who say the tentative selection of “alternative B” from among the four options ignores years of local input and will have devastating impacts on the region’s economy and ways of life.
Along with guiding grazing and energy development, the final update will have a bearing on recreation on the enormous acreage, which includes the prized hunting grounds of the Greater Little Mountain Area, the badlands of Adobe Town and the Killpecker Dunes, a shifting sands play area in the Red Desert. Residents look for rocks, snowmobile, camp and hike on the lands. Indigenous residents visit sacred sites.
Though critics claim the plan imperils outdoor recreation access, BLM staffers maintain that is not the case.
“When we see people getting upset and wondering if their hunting access is going to be diminished — no, that is not the case,’” BLM Public Affairs Specialist Micky Fisher said. “You’re going to continue to get the same access as you had before. Across the board and all alternatives will continue that same public access.”
‘Every recreation possible’
Sen. Stacy Jones (R-Rock Springs) called the draft “horrific” last week during a Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee meeting.
“It affects almost every way of life and every recreation possible in our county,” Jones said.
The travel committee is the latest collection of elected officials to formally discuss the plan. The Sweetwater County Commissioners, other legislative bodies, individual lawmakers and Gov. Mark Gordon have condemned it, asking the BLM to both withdraw it entirely and extend the comment period, which is currently set to close Nov. 16.
Jones and other critics have seized upon several aspects of the agency’s “preferred plan,” alternative B, as threats to recreation.
One major source of consternation: Alternative B as it was released would close 4,505 miles of routes and eliminate another 10,006 miles of undesignated, illegal routes. Those provisions were a remnant from a travel management plan that has been scrapped, BLM officials say, and were left in error.
“There’s absolutely an error in chapter four that we need to fix,” Rock Springs Field Office Manager Kimberlee Foster told WyoFile. “It’ll be fixed between the draft and final.”
Under alternative B, several existing special recreation management area designations would be eliminated. That includes the Green River, the Killpecker Sand Dunes, the Oregon and Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trails and the Wind River Front SMRAs. SMRA designations provide specific recreation opportunities such as trailhead areas for hikers or off-road vehicle users.
Though that would mean developed recreation would not be prioritized, the areas will remain open and the BLM would continue to maintain and make available current developed sites like campgrounds or parking lots, Fisher of the BLM said.
In addition, Fisher told WyoFile:
- Existing campgrounds would continue to be open and maintained.
- Dispersed camping would still be allowed.
- Recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and backpacking would still be allowed.
- Motorized vehicles would be allowed on established roads and trails including in the Killpecker Sand Dunes open play area.
- There are no restrictions to activities such as snowmobiling or hiking proposed for the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail.
Critics also decry the transference of many acres of the field office into areas of critical environmental concern, a designation used to protect important historic, cultural and scenic values.
Currently some 286,000 acres of the Rock Springs Field Office lands are designated ACECs. Under alternative B that would swell to more than 1.5 million acres. Alternative C, in contrast, would do away with existing ACECs, leaving zero acres so designated.
“For whatever reason, people latched on very quickly that any ACEC designation was going to automatically restrict public use, no hunting or fishing, no dog walking, no all the other things,” Foster said. “And none of that is true.”
Alternative B proposes minor restrictions that would impact motorized vehicles, such as the aforementioned petroglyph road closure. The Boars Tusk, a striking rock obelisk in the Red Desert, would be closed to climbing activities under alternative B. As for rock hounding — another popular activity and area of concern — alternative B would require a permit for collection of petrified wood. Those permits would only be available to academic, scientific, governmental or other qualified institutions or individuals. Alternatives C and D, in contrast, would allow “collection of petrified wood for hobby purposes and commercial use.”
Alternative B also addresses the threat of over-use in statements like this: “Where off-road vehicles are causing or will cause considerable adverse effects upon soil, vegetation, wildlife, wildlife habitat, cultural resources, historical resources, threatened or endangered species, wilderness suitability, other authorized uses, or other resources, the affected areas shall be immediately closed to the type(s) of vehicle causing the adverse effect until the adverse effects are eliminated and measures implemented to prevent recurrence.”
Motorized enthusiasts are worried, Wyoming State Trails Manager Forrest Kamminga told travel committee members. Among concerns, he said: “They have absolutely nothing in this document that explains how they’re going to manage over-the-snow-vehicle travel.”
Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation Manager Patrick Harrington said the elimination of special recreation management areas could be in conflict with his office’s goal of dispersing users away from areas of concern and concentrating them in landscapes that can support them.
“We see some concerns with this, in that without these special recreation management areas, it’s pushing all recreation towards dispersed recreation,” he said.
The travel committee voted to send a letter asking the BLM to withdraw the draft resource management plan. When asked about the state preparing for potential litigation on the plan, Gov. Gordon’s Natural Resources Policy Advisory Nolan Rap told committee members that “yes, those conversations have begun.”
Paul Kincaid, a retired Forest Service employee, drove to the Rock Springs open house from Green River. He was mostly interested in the Little Mountain area south of Rock Springs, he said, where he has been hunting since the ‘60s. He hopes the area remains as is — and isn’t subject to intensive energy development.
“Just leave it like it is,” he said.
Kathy Lichtendahl of northwest Wyoming has also spent time in the Red Desert area, camping and “wandering around” photographing landscape and vegetation. As a recreationist, she’s not threatened by the conservation-forward approach, she said.
“Yes, I’m a recreationist, but I’m hoping that recreationists 100 years from now will also be able to enjoy the landscape,” Lichtendahl said. “And if that means there are places where I have to go to A instead of B or behave a little differently, that doesn’t bother me.”
Nikki Mann of Lander hiked the Continental Divide Trail in 2011, and said the Red Desert section left a lasting impression — even compared to the hundreds of miles crossing other states. It was hot and vast, a landscape so big you could see your path for days, she said. “It is a very special place.”
As a recreator who has also done the Run the Red event, Mann said she appreciates the plan’s acknowledgement of the landscape’s singular value.
“I think this plan is a nod to, hey, there are lots of important ecosystems around the state … but there’s some that are truly unique among those, and this is one of them,” she said.
It may not be perfect from a recreation standpoint, she said, but “it’s a draft.”
BLM staffers stress that too. The draft is likely to change, especially as substantive comments flow in from locals and other interested stakeholders.
“Really the thing that we’re trying to push out the most is, we are out for public comment on this,” Fisher said. “The whole range of alternatives remains on the table, and all parts and aspects of every alternative remain on the table.”