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.”
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.
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.)