A conservation plan for 3.6 million acres of federal public lands in southwest Wyoming would devastate the local economy, many of the 200-plus people at recent meetings in Sweetwater County said as they expressed grave worries about the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposal.

The gatherings will help form “the Wyoming alternative” for the federal property, organizers said. Gov. Mark Gordon called the forums to address a revision of the Rock Springs Area Resource Management Plan, which proposes a conservation regime for the public BLM property.

In four hours of discussions in Rock Springs on Friday, which were repeated in Green River and Farson on Saturday, dozens of residents complained that the federal direction was misguided, illegal, a plot to ruin the regional economy and antithetical to the state’s “custom and culture.” The Rock Springs meeting also drew suggestions on how the BLM could modify its plan to better balance conservation and nearby communities’ socioeconomic needs.

Ire was on the front burner in Rock Springs, however, with heavy criticism leveled at special rules that would conserve areas of critical environmental concern in five counties and across the Red Desert. In a draft environmental review, the BLM proposes conservation rules to limit oil and gas leasing, protect big-game migration routes and ensure that the Pony Express Trail and other pioneer routes remain scenic.

“This violates the law.”

Joel Bousman

But that plan “would put anybody in [agriculture] out of business” said John Hay III, president of the Rock Springs Grazing Association, an influential stock growers’ group. With proposed drilling limits and other measures, he said, Sweetwater County “would be an economic wasteland.”

Gordon appointed a task force that will recommend state comments on the BLM plan; the BLM encourages people to weigh in directly through the federal government’s e-planning website or to area BLM offices. Deadline is Jan. 17.

‘Realigning the feds’

Many value the area’s public land for access to open spaces, for hunting, for providing solitude and freedom and for income-producing uses and development. The prosperity the area created and the communities it has grown was foundational to many of the comments.

Resentment surfaced that the proposed management framework for the federal public land isn’t being tailored to residents’ desires. The proposed conservation alternative, one of four options analyzed, “totally ignores the custom and culture of Wyoming,” Sublette County rancher Joel Bousman said. “This violates the law.”

Many said the area should be managed for local residents, not the rest of the country: “They don’t have any idea what’s here,” one person said of outsiders. Another proposed that when developers or others apply for a permit “the county can approve that.”

Tom Christiansen, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s former greater sage grouse leader, seen here in 2015, checks out the habitat near the Divide Lek in the area’s Golden Triangle where up to 300 male grouse strut in mating rituals in the spring. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

That 333 million people in the U.S. — and not just 578,803 Wyoming residents — have a sizable voice in the future management of the sprawling acreage irked some. “Why do people outside of our state have more voice than people in our state?” one asked.

T. Wright Dickinson of the Vermillion Ranch was confident that law requires the government to defer to area residents. Sweetwater County and its conservation district spent years forging their own plans for resource use, he said, and the feds should hew to it.

“The focus has to be realigning the feds,” he said of Wyoming’s position. “They’ve got to take our plan and make [theirs] consistent. We know we are following the law. We know those [local plans] are right.”

Several people said a balance in management won’t exist if conservation is considered a use. “This is not a conservation plan, this is a preservation plan,” one attendee said.

The BLM’s Rock Springs proposal is a template that will be imposed across the state and West, Bousman asserted; “They’re setting the stage for the future destruction of the economy.”

The federal proposal aligns with the UN Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, one critic said, a plan that some believe is a conspiracy to employ environmental goals to shackle freedom. For the Rockies, that plan would “turn this into a wildland area with no human presence,” he said. “This is the ultimate goal.”

Substantive comments

Despite distrust, several stock growers suggested how changes could be made, the type of substantive comment encouraged by facilitators from the University of Wyoming and the governor’s office.

The plan to ding grazing leaseholders for degraded conditions is draconian, several said. Ranchers complained that a failure to meet range standards would automatically result in a 20% cut to their rights, even if they didn’t cause the problem.

“The grazing permittee gets blamed,” Bousman said. Another complained his operation was facing the grazing reduction “because of old data.”

Many targeted proposed restrictions on motorized travel across the fragile semi-arid, high-altitude landscape. Access, as defined by the BLM, “has to be motorized access,” one participant said, attempting to align the term with the interest of stock growers who need vehicles and routes to manage their herds. “Motorized access is key to the whole issue.”

Others asked for more flexibility, including in areas like South Pass, the site of the Oregon and California trails, where the agency values historic views. Few in one breakout group Friday supported limiting development.

A hub for the oil and gas and other minerals industries, Rock Springs has seen its population decline by 15 persons over the last dozen years to a total of 23,021. A sign at one end of Yellowstone Road, the city’s desultory two-mile-long industrial highway, proclaims “BLM’s new plan will ruin Sweetwater County!”

“Millions and millions” of dollars were invested in that neighborhood, one commenter said, yet empty parking lots surround warehouses, shops and garages.

“Biden did this!” the poster proclaims next to a red negative circle-slash symbol covering an ATV, oil pump jack and miner’s helmet. Sweetwater.GOP produced the banner, according to its lettering.

Extractive industries are beneficial and benign, many believe. “We like our oil and gas” one person said. “I don’t see oil and gas trying to ruin the land out there.”

“Oil and gas has to have more priority than Native American sites,” said another. “We have to have a merit system” for prioritizing uses.

Motors a driving force

Being able to motor across the landscape appeared paramount to many in one breakout group. The plan proposes to limit motorized travel but, due to errors in the draft environmental impact statement, it’s uncertain by how much. The BLM will address travel management, greater sage grouse and wild horses in other environmental and planning reviews.

Potential closure of roads and two-track trails disturbed many. “What about us elderly guys who can’t walk 100 miles to hunt or go out and commune with the Lord?” asked Paul Wolnnacott.

“This is taking away Jesus, and it’s not right,” he said.

In a breakout group to discuss the Rock Springs Area Resource Management Plan Revision stockmen John Hay III, president of the Rock Springs Grazing Association, and T. Wright Dickinson of the Vermillion Ranch work on the Wyoming alternative. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Many were unconvinced the BLM selected its proposed course of action after consulting with state and local agencies. “I think they put it together backwards,” one said. “You haven’t reached out.”

Another said the existing rules and regulations are working. A third said he wouldn’t try to penetrate the draft EIS, even after forum organizers said it could be understood within 36 pages. “I’m not going to read 1,300 pages,” the skeptic said.

Organizers took away numerous ideas from Rock Springs that they will pass on to the task force, including respect for wildlife, for road, power and pipeline rights of way and for access to water for both cattle and wildlife. Wildlife “need to have an equal status” to other resources, one person said.

Those ideas and suggestions emerged despite distrust. One person complained of a threatening, armed BLM law enforcement officer who appeared too vigilant over motorized restrictions on a sliver of federal property. Another person suggested the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the entire landscape, which should be motorized.

There were tales of existing restrictions that limit the retrieval of big game carcasses to two hours and limit overnight camping to one hour — restrictions that were seen to only increase. One person said it appears today there are no regulations governing the development of renewable energy while fossil fuels get restricted. Renewable projects, however, are subject to regulations and oversight.

Sweetwater County residents value their home. “I want my freedom,” said one. “I want my wildlife, I want my mineral extraction and I want people to stay out of my way.”

Wildlife, clean air, water

The BLM manages the region under a 1997 plan that’s been used to authorize numerous developments and has also been amended and remodeled in what some describe as piecemeal fashion. “Considerable changes” have occurred requiring new guidelines, the agency says, and existing rules are no longer adequate to address the changes.

The proposed conservation alternative will protect wildlife and big game habitats and winter range, air and water quality and views. It would ensure healthy vegetation and stable soils, according to the plan.

The Rock Springs BLM field office covers 3.6 million acres, depicted here in yellow. (BLM)

The BLM is following federal laws that require a forward look as well as the Biden administration’s directive to follow science, improve public health, forge ties with tribal nations, promote renewable energy and create millions of family-supporting and union jobs in the face of climate change.

The BLM proposal emerges at a time when the Path of the Pronghorn migration route is threatened, the future of greater sage grouse hangs in the balance and mule deer herds have been diminished by development on winter range. In the 26 years since the BLM last adopted its area management plan, the U.S. population has increased by about 20%.

When agencies propose a preferred alternative, it’s frequently in the middle of the spectrum, not “guardrail” proposals that define the extremes, said Nolan Rap, Gordon’s natural resources policy advisor.

“This is the first time we’ve seen one of the guardrails be chosen,” he said. Nevertheless, calls to sue the feds or withdraw the BLM plan are unlikely to be immediately realized, forum organizers said.

“It is not the time to take legal action,” Rap said. The BLM has to complete its decision-making process, university facilitators said.

“The plan’s not going to go away,” said Steve Smutko, associate dean of the university’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. Dr. Melanie Armstrong, director of the school’s Ruckelshaus Institute, and law professor Temple Stoellinger emphasized the need for substantive comments, not just points of view.

“Commenting is not a vote,” Stoellinger said.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Sweetwater County residents value their home. “I want my freedom,” said one. “I want my wildlife, I want my mineral extraction and I want people to stay out of my way.”
    Golly, that’s alot of MY’s……..probably never heard of “this land is your land, this land is my land”….”This land was made for you and me”
    And, yes, I’d like to hear how the Cooperating Agencies addressed the RMP early on in the scoping phase.
    Finally, for those that refuse to read the entire document, please go sit down. You are ill-informed and ill-prepared to contribute any meaningful dialogue to the conversation.

  2. This is big money talking. Almost nothing has been set aside for conservation on BLM lands in WY, they cant even use the Antiquities Act to protect high value archeological sites. Ranchers have lost a significant amount of land to oil gas, and coal development yet they side with the big oil and gas groups. Wyoming, you will eventually loss everything you value due to your greed and lack of planning for the future. And, I use to work on the BLM Rock Springs District in the 1980’s.

  3. T. Wright Dickinson is a former Moffatt County commissioner. A Colorado politician embedded with a bunch of people angry about outsiders making decisions for them. Odd bedfellows.

    1. You can tell he’s not a “real Wyoming tough” guy . It was 53 degrees in Rock Springs on November 17. We don’t call that wool vest and Stormy Kromer weather, that calls for t-shirts and shorts.

  4. Sad commentary that the local plans don’t seem to value wildlife, only habitat destruction by off road vehicles, oil and gas, and livestock grazing. Whatever happened to giving, not taking?

  5. I think what is sad is that many of these people, when talked to in smaller groups, actually are both interested and more understanding; perhaps that is because they are not among those who profit from BLM lands. It is those who actually appreciate them for what they are. We still have to separate those who want all control from those who understand what multiple use actually is. Those who profit from grazing or development should also want what is best for public lands and that actual multiple use concept.

    1. The final paragraph of Angus’ report is the key to this entire issue. It is most important to provide an opportunity for the [entire] public to speak its mind. It is equally important to take very seriously the thousands of hours scientists, wildlife managers, grazing practices monitors and [fair-minded] public access managers have spent developing this plan. It should be taken seriously by everyone involved.

  6. COOPERATING AGENCY STATUS: As part of the Federal planning process, the BLM solicits local government agencies their desire to participate in the early stages of planning as cooperating agencies. During the earliest stages of planning, the local government agencies such as Game and Fish, Sweetwater county, the various cities, the conservation districts and others have a seat at the table. Cooperating agencies must have elected officials/boards and taxing/mill levee authority. This article does not reveal whether or not the possible cooperating agencies accepted the BLM’s written invitation to participate during the earliest stages of planning. Having a seat at the table does not guarantee that the local government agencies will be successful in getting their recommendations accepted; however, they can develop their own alternative and insist that it be one of the alternatives in the Draft RMP and the Final RMP. In spite of the requirement to allow local government a seat at the table, a mandate from Washington will have more influence in the preferred alternative. Where were the cooperating agencies??? Did they actively participate and submit written comments and suggestions???

    1. All RMP’s have local and state input prior to finalizing a draft. So, many of the vocal, outspoken people have already had one opportunity for input.

      1. Dan: Thanks for your reply – it is my understanding too that the state and local government agencies were offered a seat at the table during the SCOPING phase of RMP planning. It is absolutely essential that the State and local governments participate during the normal RMP process and submit meaningful comments and suggestions. NEPA has a provision which is usually ignored called ” REASONABLY FORESEEABLE SIGNIFICANT ADVERSE IMPACT ON THE HUMAN ENVIRONMENT” which could be analyzed by the University of Wyoming economists and submitted as meaningful comments. Keep in mind that comments must be factual and based on best available science; and, they should have relevance in case the Final RMP goes to appeal or to the Federal courts. The State of Wyoming should commission state of the art economic studies at this point. Its also very important for Game and Fish to submit their latest best available science concerning wildlife migration routes and detailed information on the Red Desert elk, sheep, pronghorns and other species- I assume they already have submitted recommendations during the scoping period as they should and always do. Whining and complaining will accomplish next to nothing – its time to bring forward factual evidence.

  7. Past management has often prioritized every use over conservation. Close to 75% of deer died in intense areas of oil and gas development. Air quality in Pinedale is some of the worst in the country. Migration corridors have been encroached by development and human use. Historic trails have not been respected. Garbage, industrial and recreational, litters the landscape. It reminds me of the slobs that disrespectfully track their their litter into homes and businesses. What is wrong with stewardship on the land we will leave for our children. The resources in the ground aren’t going away. We don’t have to eat the whole box of chocolates at one time. And the modern day cowboy or hunter doesn’t have to ride the entire range in his gas powered vehicle.

    1. I so agree. It’s also unfortunate that BLM never has enough enforcement people to enforce the laws they make. That being said, as a state, we should be helping.

  8. Nope Federal agencies don’t defer they consult with local governments. Defer implies the Feds leave it to locals for decision making which is flat-ass incorrect. Decision making is always left up to the agency as they are the experts and courts have always sided with them. These people are seriously ill informed, just ignorant or most likely they know it but promote the lie for their finance gain.

  9. Does the establishment of federal public land necessarily allow open access to that land ? Yes.

    Does the establishment of federal public land assure that material economic livelihoods must be produced ? No.

    Humans are only one of many animal species that use public open lands. Should the wants of humans take precedence over the needs of the other animals or associated resources ? Nope. Get in line…

  10. The following statements from the article pretty much capture the embarrassing level of thinking of the average person attending the meetings: “would put anybody in [agriculture] out of business”, “would be an economic wasteland”, “they’re setting the stage for the future destruction of the economy”, they want to “turn this into a wildland area with no human presence,” its a conspiracy to employ environmental goals to shackle freedom.

    Perhaps the most telling comment is: “I’m not going to read 1,300 pages”. And it appears there are many who hadn’t read the 1,300 pages. If they had, they wouldn’t be making such silly statements.

    While I generally encourage public input, I question giving so much voice to people who pay so little attention to the facts. Why were these meetings held only in the southwestern part of Wyoming? What about people in the rest of the state? What about the 330 million Americans in other states who also own the BLM land around Rock Springs?

    I hope BLM takes many of these comments with a grain of salt.

    1. “Perhaps the most telling comment is: “I’m not going to read 1,300 pages”. ”

      In a nutshell, this is the problem with the “i done my own research” crowd….

  11. BLM – Black lives matter – not pertinent here.
    BLM – Best for livestock and minerals – what seems to be the thought here.
    BLM – Bureau of Land Management – for Department of the Interior owned lands that Wyoming’s Constitution ceded to the Federal Government upon being accepted into the Union.

  12. No one ever wants to give up power. RSGA and the old white guys of Sweetwater County have run their county like a bunch of southern red necks for over a century. It’s like, “We don’t like yer kind around here.” Look at the photo. Then look at an arial photo of the area. I’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s a fragile landscape. Ranching and extraction aren’t doing it any favors. Of course “we like our oil and gas.” It’s money. It’s also the same patriarchal, manifest destiny that has basically raped the entire planet to death in just 150 years. Give it up old white guys.

  13. Let’s be real, Hay, the grazers and the extractive industry hacks don’t give a damn about Wyoming’s wildlife or natural heritage. Governor Gordon is their patsy. I am an elk hunter and strongly support the BLM’s preferred alternative.