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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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.