It would be a colossal understatement to say the Bureau of Land Management’s long-awaited draft plan for managing 3.6 million acres of federal land in southwest Wyoming has been met with consternation.
In one of the more understated reviews offered by Wyoming elected officials, Gov. Mark Gordon called the 12-years-in-the-making resource management plan “Hamfisted … insincere and impractical.”
Far-right lawmakers didn’t mince words.
Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) called the plan “an absolute, full-on effort to completely disallow the use of these lands.”
Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis) said the plan would impose wilderness-like restrictions on most of the land and effectively lock out hunters.
Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) said the plan would “take away the livelihood of hundreds of ranchers in the state of Wyoming. And it’s only going to expand from here.”
Rep. Bill Allemand (R-Midwest) said the RMP and associated Biden-administration conservation policies were “probably the biggest disaster in the history of the United States,” and would affect more people than “the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.”
Winter, Bear and Allemand are all members of the hard-line Wyoming Freedom Caucus. During a Sept. 18 Freedom Caucus town hall broadcast on Facebook, Allemand went even further, saying that President Joe Biden’s goal 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.”
It’s the kind of material that makes for great headlines, political fundraisers and robust public engagement.
According to BLM officials and the plan itself, however, such bombastic statements are both largely untrue and dangerous.
“Those are outrageous comments that I can’t believe anybody in the state of Wyoming would say,” Brad Purdy, the BLM’s deputy state director for communications and a third-generation military veteran, told WyoFile.
“Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Americans died in those wars. We’re talking about a land-use plan — and a draft land-use plan at that,” he added. “Stuff like that should be shouted down from every corner of the state. That’s just so inappropriate.”
The extreme rhetoric perhaps isn’t surprising given the malcontent that’s mounting amid a flood of misinformation centered on the BLM’s draft EIS for land use in its Rock Springs Field Office. That plan, a dozen years in the making, guides the management of prized Wyoming landscapes managed in trust by the federal government for the American people, like the Red Desert and Greater Little Mountain area. The BLM’s “preferred” option, which is in line with the Biden administration’s goals and is conservation-oriented, has attracted political opponents at every level in Wyoming.
“This Rock Springs RMP will exclude, prohibit and bar all access, management and use of vast swaths of federal land throughout the United States,” U.S. House Rep. Harriet Hageman told BLM Deputy Director Michael Nedd during a recent congressional hearing. “You exclude not only oil and gas development, but livestock grazing and recreation.”
However, the allegation about impacts to recreation and grazing — echoed by Bear — isn’t true, though a few ranching operations could be affected.
The most restrictive and “preferred” option identified in the draft environmental impact statement would make roughly 0.2% of the region — 8,576 acres of 3.6 million — unavailable for livestock grazing. The remaining 99.8% of the area, some 3.583 million acres, would continue to be leased to cattle ranchers and wool growers, according to the document.
Many of the acres that would be withdrawn from domestic livestock grazing are located within the Red Creek Badlands, near where the states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming come together. The grazing permittee that holds the Red Creek allotment hasn’t run livestock in the area voluntarily for about 27 years, according to Spencer Allred, the BLM district’s supervisory rangeland management specialist. Portions of two other more active allotments would be closed under the agency’s preferred alternative, he said.
“It absolutely would have an effect on the folks on the [other grazing allotments],” Allred said. “I don’t think it would be to the level of putting them out of business, but it would absolutely have an effect on how they operate.”
Overstatements about the impacts of the BLM’s draft management plan have riled up not just politicians trying to score points, but some members of the public. Speaking from the Marbleton town hall at an open house-style public meeting Tuesday, BLM-Wyoming Rock Springs Field Office manager Kimberlee Foster said her staffers have been on the receiving end of menacing comments — though not necessarily about the plan itself.
“There’s been some hateful comments, there’s been name calling, there’s been veiled threats,” Foster said. “It’s not really about specifics in the document, it’s more that anti-government thing, which we get a lot. The hate has been more political in nature.”
Foster spoke Tuesday midway through a 3-to-6 p.m. meeting. There were only one or two members of the public still present by 4:30, though there was an orchestrated strong showing at the meeting’s onset — and even before it was scheduled to start. There were people waiting in the parking lot when the BLM officials arrived to set up their poster boards at 2:15 p.m., Foster said, and a line out the door by the meeting’s 3 p.m. start.
Marbleton resident Pat Johnson was among the few members of the public who arrived at the meeting at the end of the business day. He came because of something he heard on the radio, though couldn’t recall the station.
“I heard that they want to limit access to BLM land and they want to stop things like prospecting, hunting and motorized vehicles,” Johnson said. “That’s why I walked in here: I wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
The BLM itself is the source of some of the misinformation, which in turn has fueled more misinformation.
A Cowboy State Daily opinion column published Tuesday scolded the agency for misinforming the public about road closures proposed in the document. The BLM has maintained that its preferred draft land-use plan does not include expansive road closures, but nine times the document states that the agency’s preferred option would close 4,505 miles of routes and eliminate another 10,006 miles of undesignated, illegal routes.
On Wednesday, BLM officials told WyoFile those numbers were included in the document in error. They were remnants from a travel management plan that was being developed in conjunction with the land-use plan, though was later scrapped, Foster said.
“We need to fix that,” she said. “That was just an oversight on our part, that we didn’t pull out the impacts from what could have happened if that travel management plan was completed.”
Misinformation swirling around the Rock Springs plan has fueled growing indignation. The Wyoming Freedom Caucus has used the BLM’s draft environmental impact statement as a fundraising cause, and within its messaging made false claims like saying the plan would prohibit “wildlife grazing, recreational use [and] agricultural and hunting activities.”
The discussions have also turned toward radical measures, like attempting to take over federal lands in Wyoming.
“We’re going to want to discuss the options that we have,” Bear said in the Facebook live video. “When we talk about that, one [option] will be obviously to try to move the lands out of the hands of the feds and into the state.”
That’s a “long-term, very difficult plan,” Bear said.
Neiman, the Wyoming Legislature’s House floor majority leader, recently said he and others in Wyoming have been in talks with members of the Utah Legislature trying to reignite the somewhat dormant Sagebrush Rebellion-esque movement to unravel the legacy of federal land ownership and management in the West. This alliance, he said, is looking “at what we can do to basically take these federal lands back into the states’ hands.”
The Wyoming Legislature’s attempts to force a takeover of federal land haven’t gone anywhere in the past. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments to study whether it was feasible to manage 25 million acres of federal land. That federal land takeover was unlikely to result in a financial windfall for Wyoming, the study found.
Comments on the draft EIS are due by Nov. 16, though many stakeholders have requested the Bureau of Land Management extend its deadline. Whether that happens is up to officials at BLM headquarters in Washington. On Wednesday, Gordon transmitted a letter requesting that the BLM withdraw the draft plan entirely.
Correction: The percentage of the Rock Springs Field Office that would be unavailable to livestock grazing under the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred alternative was changed from 99.98% to 99.8%. —Ed.