A skier enjoys untracked power in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, which Congress protected in 1984. A bill introduced by Rep. Liz Cheney would allow helicopter skiing in the study area to increase from about 60 skier-days a year to 1,200. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./Jackson Hole News&Guide/WyoFile)

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney introduced a bill Dec. 20 that would allow greatly expanded helicopter skiing in a wilderness study area southwest of Jackson and permit other motorized and mechanized activities there and in two other study areas.

H.R. 4697 would amend the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984 to “clarify authorized recreational uses” in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area as well as the High Lakes and Shoal Creek wilderness study areas. The bill appears to allow High Mountain Heli Skiing to guide 1,200 skier days a year, up from a limit of approximately 60 imposed following a lawsuit about 20 years ago.

Cheney’s bill also would allow “all recreational uses,” motorized or not, that people pursued in the three study areas before the 1984 act. The bill specifically names horseback riding, snowmobiling, “dirt-bike riding” and mountain biking along with heli-skiing.

Wilderness study areas are supposed to be managed to maintain their wilderness characteristics until Congress decides whether they should become full-on wilderness areas. In congressionally designated wilderness areas motorized and mechanized transport is banned

Cheney’s bill should not impact the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, a statewide effort to resolve the status of Wyoming’s wilderness study areas, said Pete Obermueller, director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. That group launched the wilderness study area review in 2015 and expects to propose federal legislation by the fall of 2018, he said.

Anybody at any time has the right to make suggestions as to how [wilderness study areas] should be operated,” he said Friday in a telephone interview with WyoFile. Statewide, 750,000 acres of wilderness study areas administered by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management are under review.

But the Wyoming Outdoor Council believes the bill would undermine Obermueller’s statewide effort said Steff Kessler, director of external relations for the conservation organization. “As I read the bill, she is preempting the current public lands initiative work in three counties,” Kessler said. Residents in Teton, Park and Sublette counties working to build “homegrown Wyoming recommendations,” would see their efforts undermined, she said.

“This is a top-down, insider-Beltway mandate when she knows very well there are local county citizen committees working,” Kessler said. Some 40 persons are involved in committees in the three counties, she said. “Now the other committees are going to wonder … whether their work is going to be valued.”

Kessler said the Outdoor Council had asked Cheney’s state director not to interfere in the wilderness study review. “This now dismisses all that work,” Kessler said. “It’s disrespectful of local residents, their work, their knowledge and their local input.”

This map shows the Palisades Wilderness Study Area that covers portions of the Snake River Range in the Bridger-Teton and Targhee national forests. The study area covers 134,417 acres and is to be managed to preserve its wilderness characteristics until Congress decides whether to give it full wilderness status. (U.S. Forest Service)

In the helicopter skiing case, the Bridger-Teton National Forest continued to permit High Mountain Heli-Skiing to guide more and more skiers in the Palisades or Snake River Range, even after 134,417 acres was protected as a wilderness study area. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Earthjustice and the Wyoming Wilderness Association sued in 2006 to limit helicopter use and won a court victory.

A judge said permitting the operation violated the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984, among other things. The result limited High Mountain Heli-Skiing to the pre-wilderness study level of about 60 skier days.

The bill specifies that helicopter skiing could be allowed at the level the Bridger-Teton had permitted in 2005, which was up to 1,200 skier-days a winter.

High Mountain Heli-Skiing, which has been operating since 1974, began increasing its use of the Palisades area, also known as the Snake River Range, after 1984. That’s when the Wyoming Wilderness Act put much of the company’s traditional terrain — including the 285,567-acre Gros Ventre Wilderness east of Jackson — off limits.

Outfitter Jon Shick of High-Mountain Heli-Skiing did not return a call seeking comment. But he complained in an article in Men’s Journal that the restrictions left him with uninspiring terrain. “These so-called environmentalists have nothing better to do,” he said in a 2013 article titled “The War on Heli-Skiing.”

“They’ll say they’re just trying to save nature,” the publication quoted Shick saying. “But don’t believe them. They want to weaken me until I’m broke and tired and forced to go out of business.”

High Mountain Heli-Skiing advertises on its website the limited availability of skier days available in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area. “Only a few lucky skiers will ever again fly into the Wyoming side of the Snake River Range, officially the Palisades Wilderness Study Area (WSA),” the website reads. “Again for 2018, only exclusive private tours will be offered in the WSA.” A day for eight persons is listed for $15,950.

WyoFile was unable to reach conservationists involved in the suit. They have defended the 1984 wilderness act, which was championed by Cheney’s father, Dick Cheney, when he represented Wyoming in the U.S. House.

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The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

The Snake River Range stretches south from Teton Pass to the Palisades Reservoir and west from Jackson to Swan Valley, Idaho. The Palisades Wilderness Study Area covers eastern portions of the range on land administered by the Bridger-Teton, including parts of the Targhee National Forest in Wyoming.

(This story was updated Dec. 22 to incorporate the views of the Wyoming Outdoor Council — Ed.)

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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 angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. What did y’all expect from the daughter of Dick Cheney, who masterminded the War in Iraq, when there were no weapons of mass destruction there. Run someone good against her next time. I doubt very many Wyoming voters have a passionate desire to Heli ski 120 days a year.

  2. H.R. 4697 disregards and disrespects more than a year of volunteer commitments by Wyoming citizens to the WPLI process for the Palisades, Shoal Creek, and High Lakes areas.

    WCCA’s Pete O assertion to the contrary is not persuasive. Pete is quoted as having said, “Anybody at any time has the right to make suggestions as to how [wilderness study areas] should be operated.” Liz Cheney is not “anybody.” She’s one of 435 voting members of the US House of Representatives. A draft bill is not a suggestion. It’s the opening step in re-writing the law of the land. Right now is not “anytime.” It’s the mid-to-later stage of an arduous collaborative process aimed at solving the riddle of Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas. If H.R. 4697 receives support in the US House and otherwise continues on its journey from bill to law with action in the US Senate, it may undermine consideration of larger landscape scale legislative options to bring long term peace and consensus direction to federal land management in some of Wyoming’s most remarkable settings.

    If H.R. 4697 is a stratagem to motivate the WPLI-Teton/Park/Sublette citizens to accelerate their consideration of practical options and move past the heretofore over-investment in talking about process, that might be a good thing. But if the “anyone” with the vote in the US House gets collegial support for this bill from either of Wyoming’s “anyones” in the US Senate, and they seek to turn this bill into law, the WPLI process will have been all for naught. That’s not what the Wyoming County Commissioners’ Association promised the public.

    WPLI-Teton members – please trump this bill with a bigger, brighter, more cohesive package that protects roadless national forest lands on national forest lands in Teton County. It’s within your reach. Former US Rep. Richard B. Cheney took pains to respect grassroots power. It’s time to show current US Rep. Liz Cheney what that looks like and ask for the same level of teamwork that her dad embraced when he led his share of the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act effort – what he repeatedly called his proudest achievement as a member of congress.

  3. Representative Cheney forgets there were next to no mountain bikes in 1984 vying to get into the Palisades, nor were there snowmobiles capable of reaching anything but moderate terrain. Cheney is undermining a statewide process, the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative; we were told our delegation wanted to hear recommendations from several user groups. Looks like we’re being ignored and wasting lots of time and money.

  4. There are at least 500 other policy issues that are far more important for Mrs. Elizabeth Perry to devote her precious Congressional legislative time towards than pandering to machineheads who want to encroach on three very specific wilderness areas. Shortly after the new year, my Top Ten list of important legislative actions affecting Wyomingites demanding her foremost consideration will be in her InBox. Helicopter skiing is not on that list…

    Tell me again who she represents in Congress ?

  5. I gotta laugh when folks like HighMountain Heli-Skiing operator John Shick claim, “These so-called environmentalists have nothing better to do,” he said in a 2013 (Men’s Journal) article titled “The War on Heli-Skiing.”

    Something “better to do,” presumably, would be something like riding a snow machine into a wilderness study area like the Palisades?

    He went on to claim something even more preposterous: “They’ll say they’re just trying to save nature,” the publication quoted Shick saying. “But don’t believe them. They want to weaken me until I’m broke and tired and forced to go out of business.”

    Well, I understand and do feel for the guy, but a wilderness study area is no place for the wealthy person’s sport of helicopter skiing.