The Sand Dunes BLM Wilderness Study Area covers more than 26,000 acres near the Boars Tusk in Sweetwater County, one of two key counties that chose not to participate in the public lands initiative. The BLM in 1991 recommended 21,000 acres be permanently protected as wilderness and off limits to motorized travel and mineral development. (BLM)

In 2015, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association launched the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative with a simple, but time-tested premise: Wyoming residents, working together in good faith, could find common ground to help resolve the status of Wyoming’s last remaining Wilderness Study Areas.

It was, and is, the right idea. Having local people from all backgrounds develop real solutions by working together? This is the Wyoming way.  

Over the past two and half years, The Wilderness Society and many conservation, sportsmen, and recreation partners have participated in good faith in the process. We have spent countless hours analyzing maps, negotiating, and searching for pragmatic compromises.

Dan Smitherman

Now, despite these efforts, the initiative is showing some signs of stress because of the heavy-handed meddling by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and a lack of willingness by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association to call her on it.

When the initiative was established, the entire Wyoming Congressional delegation pledged to support it. This support was extremely helpful in persuading stakeholders that the initiative would be taken seriously by Congress. The hope was that pragmatic bottom-up negotiations could one day become federal legislation and be passed into law.

Since then, Rep. Cheney was elected and has gone her own direction. Her new top-down approach has jeopardized local ground-up progress and confused and stymied the efforts of Wyomingites across the state.

It began last December when Rep. Cheney caught many off-guard when she introduced — with little to no consultation with local stakeholders — legislation affecting the management of three wilderness study areas. The areas affected are under discussion by three different stakeholder-based local advisory committees. None of these hard-working citizens was consulted before Rep. Cheney introduced her bill.

Since then, Rep. Cheney announced plans to introduce comprehensive legislation eliminating numerous wilderness study areas across the state. Her unrealistic and erratic timeline and willingness to undercut local discussion has sent a confusing message across Wyoming that collaboration and working together are no longer needed. Why would locals invest in the time-consuming process of seeking compromise when Wyoming’s sole representative is planning to circumvent those efforts?

Because of that, Rep. Cheney’s involvement has had a chilling effect on local discussions. Some stakeholders have disengaged because of their frustration while others have refused to collaborate in good faith.  Despite this, the WCCA has tried to minimize the impacts of Rep. Cheney’s intentions instead of respectfully asking her to stand down.

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Many interests remain committed to the success of the WPLI, including conservation, but we can’t do it alone. By remaining silent, the county commissioners association will continue to provide Rep. Cheney a license to disrupt this process with one hand, while allowing her to introduce ill-conceived and top-down legislation with the other.

Wyoming county commissioners and the WCCA can still salvage this initiative by strongly rejecting Rep. Cheney’s meddling and immediately rejecting proposals that lack sufficient stakeholder support.

The Wyoming way works as long as we all commit, and stay committed, to pragmatic compromise and consensus. Following the Cheney way could sink this historic initiative and continue a political stalemate that has existed for decades on Wyoming’s public lands. That would be a terribly unfortunate outcome for everyone involved.

Dan Smitherman is a retired Marine Corps Officer and former outfitter who lives in Bondurant where he works for The Wilderness Society.

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  1. No one wants a top down approach….well maybe, for the right reasons, its ok. Less we forget, there wouldn’t be a Yellowstone,NP, Teton NP, Devils Tower NM and other places in Wyoming without the heavy hand of the Feds. Whereas, if most of the WY County Commissioners got their way years ago, very little or none of it would have been saved. In many respects, the only thing that has changed with most of the County Commissioners from yesteryear’s are the names. Witness the current make-up and recent decisions of Sweetwater County. They got on the Cheney firetruck faster than the Dalmatian. The majority still don’t care or try to understand the economic potential of conservation tourism if the WSAs designations are at the right location, on a large scale. Why the rest of the non Greater Yellowstone Area Counties ignore whats happening in the northwest part of the State is unbelievable. In case you didn’t know, diversifying the economy or determining economic benefits of the WSAs is not a part of WPLI, nor part of the Cheney agenda. Wonder why? You can have energy and conservation tourism in the same county at the same time. Really, its ok. Desert have appeal too. In fact, I think Adobe Town has just as many attributes as Yellowstone, they are just different.
    Are you failing to look at the bigger picture? What is the real objective of Rep. Cheney? It may be a lot more sinister than WSAs. Why? The WSAs stand in the way of disposing of public lands because WSAs have a formal designation based on the Wilderness Act. So the congressional delegation is hogtied until there is some resolution. Why hasn’t WCCA taken a stand and sent Rep Cheney a cease and desist. Look at the players. Cheney, Barrasso, and Lummis understudy Pete Obermueller (WCCA) have all advocated disposing of Federal lands to the State, which would be sold to lots of BFs. Where do you think there going with this? In parting, Dick Cheney (yes the VP and Halliburton big wig), said right after he helped legislate the WY Wilderness Act,of 1984, it was the best thing he ever did for WY. His daughter is not of the same cloth.
    There is only one answer and that would be a vote by the people on a WY Constitutional Amendment to see if they prefer Federal public ownership or transfer to the State for disposal to private interest. Its not black-footed ferret science.

  2. Thank you Dan Smitherman. The WPLI effort to review the status of certain areas of federal land in Wyoming was created by the Wyoming County Commissioners. It is an excellent example of citizen discussion and input based on thousands of hours of Wyoming residents’ time and energy. It is the height of arrogance for Rep. Liz Cheney to introduce Washington-based legislation to undercut and override the work of the WPLI. Furthermore, it is a cynical manipulation of her authority when her rhetoric and her speech-making constantly applaud the individual vs. the state – but then she feels free to ride roughshod from the center over the work and influence of the local organisations. Mr. Smitherman is quite correct: the County Commissioners need to stand up and re-assert their authority in support of the autonomy of the WPLI – which they created.

  3. Well spoken remarks by your guest contributor. Wyoming locals don’t want heavy handed interference by outsiders and that includes out-of-touch elected officials beholden to organizations headquartered outside the State of Wyoming. This is NOT a case of a member of Congress riding in to rescue befuddled citizens who can’t make decisions for themselves. It’s a straight up grab of public lands for special interest groups by a representative who “represents” campaign donors. Mr. Smitherman is correct in noting that good citizens put time and effort , and months of their lives, in discussions germane to the future of Wyoming only to be hoodwinked by shady side deals which undermine this democratic process. Time for the Wyoming Commissioners to listen to those who elected them, not those hoping to benefit from Wyomings world class resources.