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.
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.
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.