Reprinted from Land Letter with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.

By Eryn Gable, special to Environment & Energy

The Bureau of Land Management has identified nearly a quarter-million acres in northwest Wyoming that may have wilderness characteristics and should be studied for possible protection as “wild lands” under the agency’s upcoming revision of its Bighorn Basin resource management plan (RMP).

The areas include more than 50,000 acres of unprotected land just east of Cody, Wyo., known as the Whistle Creek and Rough Gulch units, that border the 11,350-acre McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area, which BLM protected after an earlier wilderness inventory in 1980. If protected, the two proposed additions would require BLM to manage all of the McCullough Peaks badlands to protect their wilderness character.

Environmental groups said the lands, which are large enough to offer a true wilderness experience, deserve such special management, noting their fragile soils and rugged topography.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find places in Wyoming where you can experience a pristine landscape the way the first explorers or pioneers found it,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Laramie, Wyo.-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “McCullough Peaks is one of those truly wild, very large landscapes.”

Marshall Dominick, president of Friends of a Legacy, a Cody, Wyo.-based wild horse advocacy group, noted that the Whistle Creek area contains almost half of the 110,000-acre McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area, which supports more than 100 wild horses that are known regionally for their distinct colors, as well as rich paleontological resources. Other wildlife in the area include pronghorn antelope, mule deer, burrowing owls, golden eagles, badgers, coyotes, prairie rattlers and sage grouse, he said.

Environmentalists said the major threats to the area come from off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, which has caused erosion and damaged fragile soils and vegetation, and oil and gas development. The area was targeted for some energy development a few years ago, but the most recent exploration plan was dropped in 2008 when Wesco Petroleum canceled plans to drill a well in the Bighorn Basin, citing delays and an appeal by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

Nevertheless, environmentalists are worried the area could be targeted for exploration again when the price of natural gas rises. “I’m almost certain of it,” Dominick said.

‘Rough, broken, dissected landscape’

Even so, the region’s soils and topography would make any development difficult, if not impossible, said Chuck Neal, a retired BLM soil scientist who conducted inventories of the areas in the late 1980s. “It’s a very rough, broken, dissected landscape that’s highly erosive,” Neal said. “It’s not conducive to large-scale development simply because of the soil and landscape limitations.”

Still, Neal said it would be a wise move for BLM to formally manage the area as wild lands. “It would be legally and formally recognizing what nature herself dictates as the wisest use of that landscape,” he said.

BLM identified the McCullough Peaks lands as part of a broader inventory of possible wilderness lands within the Cody Field Office territory. The agency documented hundreds of thousands of acres that possess wilderness character, including much more territory than environmentalists had earlier proposed for wilderness designation.

A similar effort in the agency’s Worland Field Office also identified large tracts with wilderness characteristics, including tracts both known and unknown to environmental groups.

The inventories come as part of the revision process for the Bighorn Basin RMP, which will guide management policies on 3.2 million acres of federal lands and 4.2 million acres of federal minerals. BLM expects to release a draft RMP this spring, agency spokeswoman Mary Wilson said.

The Bighorn Basin already includes 12 wilderness study areas, nine areas of critical environmental concern, two areas of special designation and seven special recreation management areas.

Hilary Eisen, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s public lands advocate in Cody, Wyo., said she was happy to see the BLM inventories identify more areas with wilderness potential. “That shows that BLM is taking this seriously and that they did go out and inventory everything,” she said.

Concerns about wild lands policy

But industry officials said the Interior Department’s new wild lands policy could hamper the Bighorn Basin RMP process, as well as resource development critical to Wyoming’s economy. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s Dec. 22, 2010, executive order allows new wilderness protections on public lands by overturning a George W. Bush administration policy that prohibited the agency from temporarily protecting wilderness-quality lands until Congress decides whether to designate the lands as wilderness.

“Not only does this delay the process of the progressing RMP but it also offers the opportunity for more de facto wilderness in that area,” Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, wrote in an e-mail. “This will adversely affect the oil and gas industry but also other industries that rely on public lands for multiple use.”

J.R. Riggins, president of the Motorized Recreation Council of Wyoming, an OHV advocacy group, stressed that Wyoming — a state where the federal government owns more than four of every 10 acres — has a strong history of multiple-use policies and many residents rely on federal lands for recreational opportunities such as hiking, hunting, fishing and OHV riding. “You’re not going to see a lot of enthusiasm amongst the general public, and certainly not enthusiasm from our congressional representatives, for wilderness designations,” Riggins said.

Indeed, newly elected Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) has already asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to rescind his wild lands order, saying the department should have provided more opportunity for public review and comment on the policy change. Mead also expressed concerns about the order’s potential impacts on Wyoming’s economy and communities, saying it could drag out or halt the permitting process for BLM lands.

“Only the elected Congress is given the power, by law, to designate official Wilderness areas,” Mead wrote in a Jan. 17 letter to Salazar. “But, the policy seeks such designations by administrative fiat. With all due respect, the BLM cannot achieve these ends through this means.”

Gable is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

DOWNLOAD U.S. Bureau of Land Management documents identifying possible wilderness lands in the Cody area.

DOWNLOAD Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s order allowing new wilderness protections on public lands.

DOWNLOAD Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s letter asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to rescind his wild lands order.

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  1. Good article Erin. I found out recently that the lands identified as “Multiple Use Lands with Wilderness Characteristics” were the areas initially inventoried in the first part of a 2-part process.
    The first part was to review all roadless lands in their area, review the wilderness characteristics of the property 1. is it over 5,000 acres or adjacent to existing protected area; 2. is it primarily influenced by the processes of nature, have a natural appearance; 3. does it provide an experience of solitude.
    The Second part of the process is to determine the “manageability” of the area: 1. does it have existing leases that conflict with wilderness; 2. is there existing motorized use that would conflict with wilderness. The BLM has only carried out the first part and the lands in the inventory have not been screened for manageability.

    So for the Governor and all the elected officials to go off the deep end of opposition without the knowledge of the process demonstrated the shoot from the hip attitude that is destroyed the best parts of Wyoming. No one acre with oil and gas potential will get through this process as a recommended “Wild Lands” area.
    Be part of the process, educate yourselves and lets keep the true treasures Wyoming has left for our children to enjoy.