Oregon Buttes near South Pass are in a BLM wilderness study area that Sweetwater County commissioners want residents’ opinions on at a meeting March 6. Although the county has not joined the in-depth Wyoming Public Lands Initiative process, commissioners hope to vet 13 study areas in their county for a recommendation to U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney by the end of the month. (Ecoflight)

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s spring deadline to resolve the fate of 13 federal wilderness study areas in Sweetwater County doesn’t give enough time to properly examine the issue, the county’s commission chairman said last week.

County officials are racing to assemble management recommendations for 252,074 federal acres by the end of the month for inclusion in Cheney’s forthcoming bill — a timeline that’s also been criticized by the region’s legislators. Sweetwater County chose not to engage its citizens in the years-old statewide review known as the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, so has just a few weeks to propose what parts of 13 Bureau of Land Management tracts should be preserved.

“Certainly, it is not enough time to fully vet the issue,” Sweetwater County Commission Chairman Reid West, a Democrat, told WyoFile on Wednesday. “But I don’t know what choice we have.”

Sweetwater opted out of the statewide initiative in February 2016 for three reasons: because the BLM hadn’t completed an area resource plan, because of an “unpredictable” Washington political climate, and because WPLI was taking on “too broad of a scope.”

The WPLI goal proposed county-by-county recommendations by this summer on management of more than 750,000 acres of BLM and U.S. Forest Service wilderness study areas — recommendations that would be fashioned into a single federal bill.

But Cheney told county commissioners late last year she would introduce her own bill this spring to strip protection from 337,140 of the 577,504 BLM study acres in the state. She also proposed the Forest Service resolve management of three wilderness study lands within 90 days. Permanent wilderness designation by Congress would conserve the natural characteristics of the areas but preclude oil and gas development, logging, motorized travel, among other things.

The Killpecker Dunes, the largest active sand dune region in Wyoming, traverse the Sand Dunes Wilderness Study Area in Sweetwater County. In addition to its natural wonders, the area is valued for wildlife and geologic resources. (Ecoflight)

Cheney has since indicated she would work with counties to include their recommendations if made this spring, sending them scrambling to meet an end-of-month deadline.

That gambit prompted five Sweetwater county state legislators to ask Cheney to back off. “Please do not release these [Sweetwater] areas or recommend management for them without a meaningful public process,” wrote Sens. John Hastert (D, Green River) and Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D, Rock Springs) and Reps. John Freeman (D, Green River), JoAnn Dayton (D, Rock Springs) and Stan Blake (D, Green River). (See below.)

“The most likely path to successful public lands legislation includes a broad spectrum of stakeholders and encourages transparency and public involvement,” they wrote. “WPLI outlined this type of path, but a collaborative process can also be organized outside of WPLI. Our constituents would like to be involved in a collaborative process — if not this year, then sometime in the future… Please do not preclude that possibility by releasing our WSAs now, without our local involvement.”

Behind the 8-ball

Cheney’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but under the bill she outlined to commissioners, some 146,942 acres in BLM wilderness study areas in Sweetwater County would be managed for multiple use, allowing motorized recreation, energy development, road building and other forms of industrialization. Some of them include “remarkable badlands, like Adobe Town, vast sand dunes and towering buttes,” the legislators wrote Cheney.

The unique landscape is a draw, they said. “Some of these, with protective designations, could boost economic development opportunities for our area through increased tourism.”

Commission chairman West said he feels it’s necessary to make a recommendation to Cheney by the end of March. “We’ve been put in a position that the county needs to speak as a body in regards to Rep. Cheney’s plan to introduce a bill,” he said. To that end, the county has scheduled a public hearing Tuesday.

The legislators realize the time it should take to craft a recommendation, West said. “I think they understand for us to go through that process is a lengthy process,” he said.  “Because we haven’t been a part of the WPLI … it puts us in kind of [a position of] making an expedited decision.”

Cheney’s wilderness study bill proposed for this spring would allow multiple use on 4,000 acres of the more than 40,000 acres in the Honeycomb Buttes Wilderness Study Area, according to an outline prepared by her office. Sweetwater County commissioners will hold a hearing March 6 to gather public input before they hope to weigh in on her bill. (Ecoflight)

For Sen. Anselmi-Dalton, the wilderness study issue “should be vetted in the usual way,” she told WyoFile in an email. She called the new timeline “too quick to make the public aware.”

Rep. Blake said the Sweetwater process needs “at least a couple more months.” Adobe Town, Oregon Buttes and the Sand Dunes wilderness study tracts “need to be protected from oil and gas development,” he said in an interview. “Don’t just pull them out of WSA [status] for the sake of oil and gas.”

Based on a 27-year-old review, Cheney’s bill would allow development across 5,850 acres in Sand Dunes and 74,790 acres in Adobe Town. That 1992 BLM review recommended releasing 58 percent of its wilderness study areas in Wyoming for multiple use but protecting the balance. Cheney’s outline of her bill does not mention any such protections.

“Bad business”

One member of the public deeply engaged in public lands thinks Sweetwater should stick to its original position — that the BLM resource plan first be completed. “I think it’s premature to take a position on the wilderness study areas until the public has a chance to read and comment on the resource management plan,” said Joshua Coursey, a Green River resident and co-founder of Muley Fanatic Foundation. “There’s already a process that’s been started,” and wilderness study area decisions need to emerge from that.

“So many stakeholders have come to the table in the last five years [on the resource management plan that] to not let it reach fruition is just bad business.”

One conservation group outlined what’s at risk. “These are the 13 wonders of Sweetwater County,” Shaleas Harrison, policy associate and organizer with the Wyoming Wilderness Association, wrote supporters. “They are the only roadless areas left in Sweetwater County and account for less than 4 percent of land in the county. If the county commissioners want to determine management of these areas, they need to give the public a fair chance to participate.”

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Multiple use advocates believe otherwise, as articulated by Sweetwater commissioner Wally Johnson. The Green River Star recently quoted him criticizing some BLM activities.

“I’ve said many times to the BLM ‘this land is our land and they are nothing more than an administrator of our lands and they should listen to us;’ and they’re not,” the paper quoted him saying. He was referring to the  removal of juniper trees on Little Mountain to improve greater sage grouse habitat. Johnson thought the agency should be cutting other beetle-killed trees instead.

“We cannot stand idly by and let them do whatever they want to do with these lands,” the paper quoted him saying.

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. Keith Collins i’m a nurse living out of Cody Wyoming. Im a fifth generation Wyomite and farmer from Powell Wyoming. I drive a truck and trailer to a trailhead on Forest Service or out on BLM filled with my horses and mules and yes I fill it up with Diesel fuel. I also have used ATVs and snowmobiles. I do believe in multiple use! My values and interests are for protecting the public lands of Wyoming. Education facts:
    WSA on BLM total 577,504 acres. WSA on FS total 130,182 acres. NON wilderness public land use in Wyoming totals 23,760,339 acres (85%)!!!! Total wilderness in Wyoming 3,111,975 (11%) Wilderness Study Areas 707,686 (3%)! If all of the WSAs in Wyoming became wilderness today, wilderness would still make up only 14% of public land in Wyoming. Please explain to me how 85% is still not enough for motorized use, oil and gas exploitation and profiteering? I will not deny the fact that Wyoming is an energy state but does the whole state of Wyoming need to look like the Jonah field and Wamsutter WY?? Why don’t we think less of our own interests and profits and think more about what’s best for our ecosystems, healthy wildlife, geology, and forests/desert badlands that can never be reclaimed.

  2. Wilderness all the way!!! I want to enjoy the outdoors hiking, hunting, and fishing without ATVs, roads, and oil and gas development. Wilderness provides the Ultimate protection/preservation for many generations. Since you don’t like wilderness at least be agreeable to an intact roadless area that doesn’t allow oil and gas drilling. Protect the future of wildlife and lands, a large intact ecosystem. I love Wyoming for its outdoors and the endless opportunities of public lands! What’s left of our public lands deserve to be protected! Why should the rich get to own and control the state of Wyoming and the people in it? If you Continue to let Cheney and other representatives make decisions, then You are an uneducated slave to them!!!!! Shame on you for being selfish and not fully being educated before speaking!!????

  3. Representative Cheney gets it just like a college professor. If you set a deadline for the term paper maybe it will finally get done after years and years of study and no action.
    I had and still have hope for the WPLI to get action. It’s clear to me the proponents of “no action let’s talk about it some more” have shown that a “push” that Ms Cheney is attempting is the right medicine.

  4. It’s waaaaaay past time to RELEASE these wilderness “study” areas. They have been “studied” for more than 30 years. They are not wilderness-quality lands.