Developing a plan to manage about 3.6 million acres of federal land in southwest Wyoming was never going to be easy. The fact it has taken a dozen years — involving hundreds if not thousands of people and untold numbers of stakeholder input sessions — to create a draft environmental impact statement is testament to that.
And it’s getting more difficult. Hard-line conservatives have never liked the federal government in general and the Bureau of Land Management in particular. Any plan that doesn’t allow for either major mineral extraction or livestock grazing on every square inch of undeveloped federal land in the state is sure to elicit “they’re-trying-to-put-us-out-of-business” histrionics and thinly veiled threats of armed rebellion.
The BLM’s preferred “Alternative B” for the Rock Springs District’s Resource Management Plan prioritizes conservation, a word that isn’t even in the vocabulary of far-right groups like the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.
The planning area includes portions of Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta, Sublette and Fremont counties. The most recent RMP was signed in 1997, and the BLM has been working on a rewrite since 2011. The process was slowed by political disputes, litigation over wild horses and controversy about protection of sage grouse habitat.
Out of 18 million acres of federal land managed by the BLM in Wyoming, nearly 11 million acres are leased for oil and gas production, as reported by Wyoming Public Media. The Freedom Caucus isn’t content with that level of industrialization and wants more, even though fossil fuel companies are already sitting on undeveloped leased acreage the size of a small state. Yet those leases sit idle because they’re not profitable to drill.
Those market forces aren’t the BLM’s fault, but the Freedom Caucus is beating the drum against the plan, leading hundreds of figurative pitchfork and torch-wielding opponents flocking to town halls, open houses, city councils and legislative meetings.
The caucus, which controls at least 26 seats in the 62-member Wyoming House, is setting new lows for political discourse while also putting targets on the backs of BLM employees. It’s a serious issue. Many workers have been abused by people who believe the deliberate campaign of misinformation.
Last week, BLM-Wyoming Rock Springs Field Office Manager Kimberlee Foster told WyoFile the agency has received hateful comments, name calling and threats. “It’s not really about specifics in the document,” she said. “It’s more that anti-government thing, which we get a lot. The hate has been more political in nature.”
The familiar anti-federal response by the Freedom Caucus is dangerously off the rails. Nobody’s told more whoppers about the Rock Springs RMP than Rep. Bill Allemand (R-Midwest).
At a recent Freedom Caucus town hall, Allemand said the plan and environmental policies of President Joe Biden’s administration are “probably the biggest disaster in the history of the United States,” and affect more Americans than “the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.”
What?! That outrageous claim should shame the entire caucus, but it’s typical of the group’s fact-free arguments. The Civil War alone led to about 1.3 million military and civilian deaths, more than twice Wyoming’s current population. The other attacks sparked international wars. A draft EIS is worse?
Allemand has made other offensive comparisons. He said Biden’s 30×30 Plan which aims to conserve at least 30% of U.S. land and waters by 2030, imposes “more tyranny and oppression than the colonists were under King George.” Can somebody buy this guy a history book?
Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) was flat-out wrong when he claimed the BLM’s plan will “take away the livelihood of hundreds of ranchers in the state of Wyoming. And it’s only going to expand from here.”
Bear makes it sound like most of the 3.6 million acres covered by the new plan will be unavailable for leasing to cattle and sheep operations. In reality, it’s the opposite: only 8,576 acres — about 0.02% of the region — would be off-limits to grazing. That’s hardly the death knell of the livestock industry.
Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis) said the plan would impose wilderness-like restrictions on most of the land and effectively lock out hunters.
If Winter’s statement was true, conservation groups like the Wyoming Outdoor Council wouldn’t enthusiastically support Alternative B. WOC noted the RMP “ensures unparalleled opportunities for hiking, camping, hunting, biking, and other recreational activities for generations to come.”
WOC said the plan would fully protect vital winter range and migration corridors for mule deer, pronghorn and elk herds. It would have “enormous implications for the future of the world-renowned and beloved Red Desert,” home to some of the state’s most iconic wildlife.
The Greater Little Mountain Coalition also praised the BLM for prioritizing conservation of the area’s hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities.
Thousands of Wyoming residents want to preserve significant cultural and historical resources, not endlessly subsidize ranchers who demand cheap grazing leases and extractive industries exploiting our energy resources to make huge profits for shareholders.
So far, members of the Freedom Caucus have gotten away with lying to the public about what’s in the draft EIS. It’s particularly egregious because critics have every opportunity under a fair public process to present facts that might change the BLM’s preferred option or send the agency back to the drawing board. Public comment on the draft EIS is due Nov. 16, unless the BLM extends the deadline.
Republicans are content to try to spin the issue, sow dissent and raise money. They falsely claim Democratic administrations have waged wars on livelihoods in the West, most notably mineral extraction and ranching. It’s the quickest way to rile up an audience, and get Wyomingites to fill up GOP campaign coffers even if their candidates don’t face serious Democratic opposition.
Wyoming’s Republican Party railed for eight years against former President Barack Obama’s so-called “war on coal,” which despite GOP propaganda didn’t exist. It didn’t help coal states like Wyoming when former President Donald Trump failed to keep his promise to revive the industry, but the GOP just doubled down against Biden’s environmental agenda.
Expect the Freedom Caucus at the 2024 Legislature to exploit the controversial management plan to renew calls for the state to take over managing all federal lands in Wyoming, and perhaps ownership as well.
Wyoming has walked down this road before, spending $75,000 on a 2016 study of what would happen if Wyoming simply managed — but didn’t own — 25 million acres of BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands. The conclusion?
It would be an economic disaster. The Wyoming Office of State Lands manages only 3.5 million acres, and employs 96 people full-time. The BLM has 800 full-time employees, who would have to be replaced by the state.
If ownership was transferred to the state, the rules and laws governing public lands would remain the same, including federal labor laws and government contracting. The feds also require extensive environmental reviews which the state would have to take over.
Meanwhile, Wyoming wouldn’t get a dime more than it does now for mineral leasing and grazing and recreation fees.
Would any of the additional red tape and responsibilities benefit Wyoming? I submit it would not.
But the Freedom Caucus apparently thinks it would be a great deal. “When we talk about that, one option will obviously be to try to move the lands out of the hands of the feds and into the state,” Bear said.
Facts, not far-right talking points espoused by the Freedom Caucus, should decide what’s in the BLM’s final plan. But no matter which plan prevails, the Legislature should not use the outcome as an excuse to push for the state to be in charge of managing federal lands. It’s a guaranteed failure, and an incredibly expensive one.