The Ferris Mountains are part of a BLM wilderness study area in Carbon County. A local group is considering how it should be managed. (BLM)

If everything you know about the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative was derived from the May 29 column by Erik Molvar, you could be forgiven for thinking WPLI is at best a colossal failure, or at worst a right-wing conspiracy so evil it will ruin everything you love about Wyoming. The truth is a little different, and not nearly so scandalous.  

WyoFile is known for its long-form stories, but not even these digital pages hold enough space to counter all of Molvar’s red herrings. From the opening sentence his intention is to discredit the WPLI and cast county commissioners as the villains of an anti-conservation melodrama. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, given that Mr. Molvar has long been a spokesman of the my-way-or-the-highway brand of public lands advocacy. WPLI represents a fundamentally different approach.

Pete Obermueller (Courtesy of Wyoming County Commissioners Association)

The Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Areas in Wyoming were temporarily set aside by Congress 42 years ago so that a period of study — hence the name — could help Congress decide if they should be designated as wilderness. The Forest Service WSAs were created later, but with similar intent. The BLM completed its study in 1991, recommending about half the acres for wilderness. The BLM distributed its report to those with authority to act on its recommendations: Congress.  Would it surprise you to learn that Congress has taken no action? Some have tried, but to date none has been successful because the bills are supported by only one side or the other, relegating them to the purgatory of a divided Congress stuck in stalemate.

During my years as a public lands policy advisor on Capitol Hill, I learned that too often people were quick to dismiss even meritorious ideas, choosing instead to question the motives and integrity of those with which they might have a generic political disagreement. The result was, and remains to be, a tendency to retreat to our corners and try to deliver a knockout punch. Effective sometimes? Sure. Sustainable? Not really.

When I returned home to work for Wyoming’s county commissioners, I learned from them there is another way to approach public policy decisions. Commissioners are elected officials and identify with a political party under Wyoming’s electoral system, but unlike legislators they generally do not write laws. Instead they help administer the state’s laws, often assuming the role of non-partisan referees of local disputes under rules written by others. And because they live in the communities they represent, their decisions are more reflective of the citizens’ views, and more easily checked by citizens when their decisions are out of step.

In response to the leadership and vision of Wyoming’s Commissioners, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association launched WPLI, an open and transparent process that counties could choose to pursue. It is one optional approach that commissioners agreed might work in some places but likely would not be feasible everywhere. Those that chose this path did so not because they were guaranteed success, but because they believed that if we could find agreement first with our neighbors, then perhaps we could also emerge from our trenches long enough to help Congress — where all public land owners have their say — pass sustainable legislation.

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With few exceptions the participants in WPLI have acted in good faith… and good humor. They have put in long hours studying the WSAs from every angle and parsing every word and nuance to uncover an acceptable agreement. Some could not get there. Some are still trying. No one involved in this process was naïve enough to believe every issue could be resolved. Still, it is inspirational that commissioners and their volunteer committees would sit across the table from one another in authentic engagement over difficult issues when frankly it is so much easier to land haymakers on social media or op-ed pages. I commend every commissioner and advisory member alike and take no small amount of offense at the belittling of their efforts.  

Molvar expends a great deal of energy presenting WyoFile readers with false choices (like WSAs can only be for “protection” or “industrial use”) and irresponsible untruths (like WPLI is a “county led wilderness repeal process”). Why is he so intent on upending this inclusive effort to decision-making? Great ideas garner enemies from “all those who are well-off from the existing order of things” explains Niccolo Machiavelli. Congress handed out the unmerited gift of a never-ending “study.” Rather than engage in an honest conversation about whether that gift still serves the largest number of people who jointly own these areas, Molvar chose not to meaningfully participate in any WPLI discussions, opting instead to take pot shots, mislead onlookers, and even threaten litigation against participants.  

WPLI stands in opposition to this kind of intentional divisiveness; but, let’s be honest, the initiative wasn’t planned on Sesame Street. Arriving at decisions has not been easy, and 100 percent consensus is elusive. The process eschewed shouting at one another from afar in favor of difficult, tiring, face-to-face negotiations among sometimes competing interests; an arrangement that only works if all those invested in the endeavor want it to work. Commissioners understand that they cannot force anyone to participate, and there is no winner-take-all, which is why yesterday’s winners want us to fail. But if an agreement can be found, it can propel and sustain a lasting solution. If this experiment works even once, then the people and organizations that thrive on cantankerous disagreements can be called into question and even nullified.  

It is true that not everything about WPLI has worked as well as I, or the commissioners, would have hoped. Finding agreement on basic questions of who should be at the table and what rules should apply is evidence that we have not yet reached agreement. Even so, we are still working. I am proud that the commissioners took on this ambitious project. It is hard to find answers everyone supports, but perhaps we can find answers everyone can live with. We owe it to ourselves, and to Wyoming, to try.

Pete Obermueller

Pete Obermueller is the executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, a post he has held since November 2013. As executive director, his duties include representing the state’s...

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  1. The overriding factor is that these lands do not belong to Wyoming. They belong to all citizens of the United States and to our children, grandchildren and so on. To not preserve them intact, either as study areas, scenic rivers, or in some way that does not degrade their qualities, is what is most important.

  2. Keep in the foremind here that as Obermueller attempts to skewer Molvar in a ‘ shoot the messenger ‘ tactic to neutralize the dissent , he himself is of very questionable merits and sublative motives . Expanding on his brief bio here, Obermueller was tempered at the hardwood conservative halls of the Potomac Beltway . He worked as legislative director Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, she of the congregation of anti-wilderness dogmas and no friend to public land if there was money to be made from them , especially true wilderness land which has little need of monied interests beyond the trailhead and boundary line . Lummis was only slightly less anti-wilderness than the current occupant of the seat Mrs. Elizabeth Perry a/k/a Liz Cheney ” The Virginian” , and Obermueller was Lummis’ lieutenant .

    More alarming is the tenure of Obermueller as Executive Director of the Congressional Western Caucus , a club of some 40 congressmen from the West that formed way back in 1993 precisely to find ways to leverage control of public lands back to the states. That group is almost entirely if not exclusively comprised of Republicans. The CWC is presntly ciared by Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, a dentist by trade. If that last name is familiar, it’s because Congressman Gosar is older brother to Pete Gosar , the Wyoming state plane pilot and former state chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party , who made a credible run for Governor here as a Democrat back in 2010 and 2014.

    The original CWC mission statement is a caucus is dedicated to the principles of multiple use, private property, limited government and local decision-making. Scrape the hide off that for basic forensics and x-ray down to the bone marrow and you will find the DNA of the Sagebrush Rebellion and Wise Use movements , easily. In more recent times the CWC has plied its levers and axes mightily on “reforming” the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and other federal dominions in order to exponentially expand Multiple Use ( read: commercial for profit resource exploitations ) while simulataneous neutering further wilderness designations and national monument establishment .

    As the CWC Exec , Obermueller’s job description was to provide the tools and means to stall or stop the very wilderness designations that the Wyoming Public Lands Inititative was created to shephard. Obie was steeped in anti-wilderness broth long before he became head of the Wyoming County Commissioner Association ( WCCA ) five years ago . To my eyes based on a few observations , that WCCA appears to be an ideological scale model of the Congressional Western Caucus cabal he previously drove, at least on public lands issues.

    So hopefully that explains who what and where Pete Obermueller is coming from here when he subverts Eric Molvar – he who formerly headed the Wyoming Biodiversity conservation alliance and is currently the state director for Western Watersheds – both organizations that Sagebrush Rebels, Wise Users, thje Stockgrowers and a stagecoach full of other robber barons most love to hate hereabouts. If the Cheyenne Social Club still existed where Wyoming state politicos and outsized Stetsons could go drink and smoke cigars , Molvar’s face would certainly be on the dartboard or the target at the back of the firing practice range.

    Obermueller attempts to defend the WPLI – the brainchild (?!?) of the County Commissioners – and the ” process” of extracting BLM and Forest Service wilderness study areas from federal limbo and converting them to a permanent designation. He defends the framework and process as being ” open and transparent ” , except that it was anything but. The WPLI was chartered by County Commissioners- themselves creatures of the State Legislature – to follow a narrow one lane road with very high guardrails and lots of checkpoints whose route was intended to force the Feds to acquiesce to State fiat and get off their duffs to ” do something ” about those 55 infernal and eternal wilderness study areas that have appear as moles and lesions on state land use maps for four decades. I think we can all pretty much agree it was past time to adjudicate those WSA tracts , but frankly the WPLI process and hidden agenda was not the way to go about it. The WPLI was corrupt; deformed ; congenitally defective from the day of its birth because of the duality of anti-wilderness ethos and the goal of reverting control of federal public lands back to the States is its marching orders .

    Do not think for one millisecond that the WPLI is not a blood relative to Ken Ivory’s American Lands Council (ALC) and the shadowy quasi- government entity known as the American Legislative Exchange Council ( ALEC ) . If you admire the Koch Brothers, Newt Gingrich , and the renegade rancher Cliven Bundy , then ALC , ALEC, and by inference WPLI are there for you. We could turn off the road and drive into the weeds all day exploring the manifest of those groups and dozens of others dedicated to usurping federal lands and returning them to state control if not outright state ownership. It suffices to say the WPLI has plenty of company in nefariously working to do just that : transmute federal lands into state authority , Be that as it may , Ivory’s ALC cabal saw it’s membership drop by fifty percent when a committee of western state’s Attorneys General concluded 11-1 that a lawsuit to force the federal government to turn over lands to the States had a snowball’s chance of succeeding . But the sentiment to grab federal land for state purposes is far from comatose , especially in Wyoming.

    I cannot personally address the efforts of WPLI in the bulk of Wyoming’s 55 wilderness studya reas under its purview, but I can say unequivocally that the process Obermueller touts was a sterling example of abject corruption in my own Park County Wyoming where the 10 member / 12 alternate or advisor WPLI committee was examining the Beartooth High lakes ( Forest Service WSA ) and the McCullough Peaks high desert areas (BLM-WSA). Be it known that the Park County Commission is one of the West’s most strident and active anti-Federal Government commissions , who have challenged federal authority at every opportunity…BLM Planning , Forest Service travel management , Yellowstone National Park Service planning , Grizzlies, Wolves, yada yada – and most recently their 2-year foray into WPLI. Instead of staying on their own Reservation ( read: precisely delineated nonfederal lands in an established State county ) managing their own for roads and bridges , snowplowing, public safety, and local courthouse sundries as a fulltime job , the five activist Commish bedevil the federal behemoth like five field mice facing a wooly mammoth and expecting to win concessions. They took WPLI inordinantely seriously.

    What the Park COunty commish did NOT do was allow for new wilderness designation. They had a hardline No New Wilderness Area position that was intravenously injected into their WPLI committee. Truth be told even though the lands under consideration had been managed as defacto wilderness for decades, the Commish rescinded that notion and would only accept some form of multiple use Special Management designation as a product. To compound the perversity, they refused to accept from the outset any opinion or testimony that might possibly be derived from ” outside sources ” , meaning anyone not a resident of the County and fully representing the local views. No Sierra Club allowed. In other words, they inverted the foundational premise that wilderness belongs to all Americans and replaced it with a misguided belief that locals have the first , best , and highest say in determining the final recommendation without respect to outside interests from further afield. Which in effect denies the existence of wilderness management being in everyone’s interests , not special interests and local interests. In a word, a travesty.

    The Commish stacked the membership of the WPLI advisory committee heavily in favor of ranching , energy , an economic development professional , and a motorized recreation representative. Snowmobilers have an inordinate amount of political clout in Park County , and the ATV’ers are rising in patronage as well . The lone Non-Motorized Recreation representative on the committee is an ardent mountain biker but was expected to represent the backcountry horsemen , XC skiers, hikers et al but was personally indifferent owards. The big game outfitters association had a seat, but Shoshone Backcountry Horsemen did not. The WPLI advisory board was heavily skewed away from wilderness users towards the mechanized, motorized, and monetized mavens. Again , the No New Wilderness Areas dictum was favored, and any voice appearing to emeanate from Bozeman Montana or anywhere else outside Park County on behalf of America-At-Large was untenable..

    Except that there were two holdouts on the board… the local representative of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and a private citizen with strong conservation affiliations in addition to being an ardent horseperson and rancher . They would not vote to adopt the rest of the advisory board’s recommendation od Special Management Units instead of wilderness because it did not take into account those broader outside interests and disfavored the very nature of wilderness itself at home. So after 22 months of meetings the Park County WPLI process failed for lacking unanimity at the end . It fell on it’s own sword by refusing to allow America-at-Large a voice at the Park County table , even though only 78 percent of Park County is public land, mostly federal. The amount of WSA lands in play was miniscule – a few thousands of acres among the 3,350,000 acres of the County proper. The Park County commish and the majority of their WPLI advisory board could be said to have looked at the entire landscape thru the wrong end of the binoculars… that adding a few thousand acres of wilderness somehow threatens their very way of life and economy. Which of course is absurd.

    Yet the shortminded Park County commish could not bring themselves to accept that lands managed as defacto wilderness for 40+ years could or would be formally designated as such going forward . manifest Destiny still lives here. As such , no recommendation will be made to the state WPLI aggregate from Park County. When it comes to public lands , Ideology and dogma were more important than codifying what already lay at the commissioner’s feet. Of course they tarred and feathered the entire global conservation community and wilderness advocates for daring to tell THEM that the highest and best use for some critical landscapes is to just leave it alone. How dare they.

    When Pete Obermueller says that the WPLI framework and process was ” open and transparent ” he is speaking with a forked tongue. No shortage of disinformation , either. The WPLI was frontloaded to disavow wilderness whereever possible, and that failed in Park County. When Obermueller tries to hang that failure on conservationists and preservationists – whether in general or by name – he is being most disigenuous. At the end of the day he’s the sum total of his political resumé being , consistent to his own nature and belief system.

    The WPLI process is a perfect example of why Wyoming can be it’s own worst enemy at times. Everything in Wyoming is political, except politics, which is personal.

  3. I like the idea of local committees providing input on the use of public lands and believe we do need to avoid the polarizing ideological talk we see too often today. The problem with the committees doesn’t come from their process, it comes from the way the commissioners control who sits on the committees. In too many cases, county commissioners appoint people who have strong anti-agency biases and that colors their decision-making. Mr. Obermueller is undoubtedly a careful, well-intentioned employee of his association, but he may need to get out-of-the-box when he thinks about supporting a process with a fatal foundational flaw.

  4. The WPLI is an attempt to garner local agreement on the fate of federal BLM and Forest Service Wilderness Study Areas. These federal lands are managed to retain their potential suitability for future designation as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

    The WPLI is driven by local county commissioners who, after consulting with other citizens, were to come up with agreement or at least recommendations about the fate of these federal WSA lands.

    The fatal flaw in Mr. Obermueller’s and the WPLI proposal is that these are public lands that belong to all 330 million Americans, not just the local residents of any particular Wyoming county. The entire WPLI process has left out the opinions, values and interests of the people who own and pay taxes to administer and support the management of these lands.

    Beyond the question of fairness and equity about lands that belong to all Americans, there are other justifications for supporting wilderness protection for these lands.

    First, at this point in time, only 2.7% of the lower 48 states are protected by the federal wilderness legislation. Even if all WSAs and other suitable qualified lands were given wilderness designation, this would still amount to around 5% of the lower 48 states.

    Protecting wildlands is a gesture of humility, generosity and restraint. It means we are providing a small amount of America in an undeveloped condition for present and most importantly future generations of Americans. These are all good conservative attributes that we Americans value.

    These lands are also exceptional habitat for many other living things that we share the planet with from grizzlies to Colorado cutthroat trout to bighorn sheep. Setting aside a little bit of Wyoming for these critters is part of what makes Wyoming such a special place to live.

    As someone who formerly lived in Wyoming, and regularly returns to visit the state, it is the state’s wildlands that makes Wyoming so special. The WPLI process is an attempt to usurp the democratic process and subverts the interest of the majority of American’s birthright to our public lands.

    George Wuerthner is the author of 38 books including Yellowstone: A visitor’s companion, Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Protecting the Wild: Parks and Wilderness The Foundation for Conservation.

  5. Open and transparent, really? I will admit it is a very interesting process. The coordinate offense of going after County Officials over Wilderness Study Areas was designed at National Level by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and then Mr. Obermuller has the gall to claim it is local? All over Wyoming and Montana hucksters paid by ALEC shills hired desperate college graduates to shovel drivel dreamed up by those that would steal America’s lands for exploration and profit.

    Corporations are using the profits made off the backs of employees to fund organizations and hucksters like Mr. Obermuller to steal our lands for their profit. There is no other reason for this so called “local” initiative.

    Yes this process of keeping these lands out of corporate hands has been sustainable since Ronald Reagan thwarted the will of the people by his pocket veto of a wilderness act in 1977. The people will fight for their lands and any Wyoming native should know it.

    The use of Machiavelli is Freudian, but I prefer Sun Tzu – “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

  6. “Intentional divisiveness” is real, and its troubling to those who really care about the land. People who value public lands in Wyoming – and other states – try to understand what they’re talking about before they choose sides. Molvar’s stance is disappointing.

  7. The WPLI process strives to include local input, but is there any effort to include those from outside of Wyoming? The land in question is owned by the 330 million people of this country, not just Wyomingites. Do we not allow 99.8% of the landowners a say in the management of their lands? I’m sure most folks in New Jersey don’t know much or care about their lands out here but I think an effort needs to be made to educate out-of-staters about their lands and provide a conduit for input into management. Could this outreach be achieved through individual states’ departments of natural resources?