The Ferris Mountains are part of a BLM wilderness study area in Carbon County. A local group is considering how it should be managed. (BLM)

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney may incorporate local recommendations on wilderness study areas into legislation, but only if those recommendations are completed by April, several participants in an 11-county effort told WyoFile this week.

That may not give county advisory committees working on recommendations enough time to complete their work, several county commissioners who participated in a conference call with Cheney last week said.

Several participants said Cheney apparently also has changed her position that legislation should immediately strip protection from 337,140 acres of Wyoming BLM wilderness study areas. Her bill, originally said to be set for introduction in January, won’t be finalized before April, participants in the call said.

Cheney’s office declined to offer any updates on the status of her bill, which addresses U.S. Forest Service and BLM wilderness study areas in Wyoming.

“She’s still talking about March for her bill — March or April,” said Teton County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim, who joined the phone call with Cheney last week.

Sublette County Commission Chairman Joel Bousman, who heard part of the call, echoed Vogelheim’s assessment. “It led me to think if we could get our recommendations in by, say, April, hopefully they could be involved in her bill,” he said.

That timetable would disrupt the original schedule set by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, which launched the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative in 2015. “Final recommendations should be advanced to the Boards of County Commissioners of participating counties by Spring/Summer 2018,” the WPLI website says.

Will counties have completed their reviews?

Classifying wilderness study areas as permanent wilderness would prevent oil and gas development, logging, road-building, motorized travel and other forms of mechanized transport, among other things. Release from temporary WSA status to multiple use would allow those activities. Nine counties have established collaborative advisory committees to consider the fate of WSAs within their boundaries and two are cooperating with neighboring counties.

The Sweetwater Canyon BLM wilderness study area in Fremont County is one of many being considered for wilderness protection by a county advisory group. (BLM)

A founding principle of the initiative is that participants’ recommendations would be reviewed by Wyoming’s federal delegation, which would “to the maximum extent practicable, include them in a legislative draft to be introduced in Congress,” the WPLI website says. But Cheney threw a wrench in the WPLI process and preempted local input in December, many participants say, when she outlined a wilderness bill without consulting the groups.

The Wyoming County Commissioners Association circulated an outline of the bill to some participating commissioners in a Dec. 11, 2017, email.

Today, at least one county’s advisory council — Johnson — has completed work on two of three study areas in its jurisdiction. But other groups are not so far along.

It would be “a bit of a stretch” for Teton County to reach a recommendation by April, Vogelheim said. Fellow commissioner Mark Newcomb, who sits on the advisory board, said his group was “kinda hoping June” would be a completion date. “There’s a lot of ground to cover,” he said.

In Fremont County, Commissioner Travis Becker called the timetable “fluid” and was uncertain whether local recommendations would be incorporated in a Cheney bill.

“We are certainly going to be trying to wrap up sooner rather than later,” he said. “We’re not letting her bill stifle or stall the process we’ve already started.”

Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell may see his advisory group finish its recommendation on the Fortification Creek wilderness study area in time for a Cheney bill. But other counties with more complex negotiations and circumstances may not be that far along, he said.

“The idea that the association had was that when all of the committees were done, they would all get lumped together,” and one piece of federal legislation would advance, he said.

“Everybody’s not going to have the same exact time frames,” Bell said. “I don’t think it’s something we can rush.”

Teton’s Vogelheim said one consideration of Cheney’s is a push by House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah. He wants to consider a multi-state wilderness bill, Vogelheim said.

Although Cheney has not given a definitive timeline, “she has indicated a real willingness to allow us to finish the works of our collaborative groups,” Bill Novotny, Johnson County Commission Chairman wrote in an email.

Bill outline – give Forest Service 90 days

The outline of Cheney’s original bill distributed in December would give the U.S. Forest Service 90 days to recommend action on wilderness study areas in Teton, Lincoln, Sublette and Park counties. Together those cover 182,019 acres. “…[A]ny USFS [wilderness study area] that does not receive a recommendation for wilderness will be released,” the December outline said.

But the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative urges participants to think beyond the binary choice of either strict wilderness or multiple use management. Such in-between compromises could preclude oil and gas development, road-building, logging, and most motorized access, for example, but still allow grazing and mountain biking.

Johnson County’s advisory committee has proposed such a scheme for two BLM study areas there. Their proposal would allow existing uses to continue. Wyoming’s lone representative needs to understand the WPLI process, one member said.

“Cheney has set up a dichotomy that’s divisive,” said Maria Katherman, a member of one Johnson County study group who spoke for herself. “We do not think that these lands should be wilderness but we do not think they should be released to multiple use.”

Vogelheim said his “big pitch” to Cheney was that the collaborative effort could be a model on how communities could influence the management of nearby federal lands. “That’s the important thing,” he said, adding that Cheney showed “her interest in the local voices.”

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BLM and Forest Service property is owned by all Americans, observers note, who are represented by the governments in 3,142 counties or county equivalents nationwide. Successful wilderness bills are bipartisan and reflect broad views, said Nick Dobric, a representative of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who sits on the Fremont County advisory committee. “Those partisan bills do not go anywhere,” he said, while also stressing that he did not represent the committee he sits on.

Cheney won election after the county commissioners’ association launched the initiative, and she never pledged to support it. Neither Cheney’s office nor the WPLI organizer Pete Obermueller would provide updates on the bill.

Obermueller is executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. He previously served as legislative director for former Wyoming Congressman Cynthia Lummis and as executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus, a U.S. House group that promotes Western interests.

A link to a website with an out-of-date recommendation for BLM wilderness study areas in Johnson County has been removed. WyoFile will link to updated recommendations when they are posted — Ed.

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. Cheney: Remember when you said: “I applaud President Trump for keeping his campaign promises to end federal overreach and return authority to our states and local communities” ?

    The local people on the WPLI committees remember it. At least have the integrity and common sense to allow our efforts to be completed and then take them as seriously as you do your out-of-state donors!

  2. Cheney’s bill is a true example of federal overreach! Cheney, who’s tired rhetoric often deals with “federal overreach” ought to let the State’s process work.