Once lauded as an innovative, nonpartisan, locally driven solution to federal land management gridlock, the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative is in danger of eleventh-hour collapse as new developments reveal deep divisions.
Conservation-oriented participants in the Wyoming County Commissioners Association’s program complain of changed rules, incomplete participation, reduced bargaining options, and unanticipated deadlines as they seek to preserve wilderness qualities on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land.
Counties have unfairly altered the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative charter, they say. Public critics claim that a boycott by two key counties also disadvantages conservationists. U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney has disrupted the WPLI timeline and the goal of fashioning a single federal bill to resolve the fate of wilderness study areas by injecting herself into the mix mid-process, participants on both side of the debate say.
But Pete Obermueller, director of the commissioners’ association that launched the initiative, said the process continues as designed. “The WCCA created an open, voluntary, county-led process intended to bring a wide array of opinions and ideas to the table,” he wrote WyoFile in an email Monday. “We made suggestions on how to proceed, but we did not dictate. Every county and their advisory committees were free to follow their own path.
“In the end, the process honors local decision making and local leadership at its most basic level,” Obermueller wrote. “The WCCA stands behind that approach.”
Launched in 2015, the WPLI seeks local consensus on the future of 42 BLM wilderness study areas and three Forest Service study areas located in 13 Wyoming counties. There are eight committees in nine participating counties, a participant said. The initiative sought to address more than 750,000 acres of federal wilderness-study lands in the state, recommending whether they should be released for multiple use, classified as non-motorized wilderness areas, or have some in-between designation.
Tensions rise as conflicting user groups try to agree.
One conflict emblematic of the difficulty simmers in Park County where factions are at odds regarding snowmobiling in the High Lakes WSA of the Shoshone National Forest and the viability of designating wilderness elsewhere as a trade-off. A Park County WPLI committee is four months behind, in part due to “people maybe not wanting to negotiate in good faith,” said Bucky Hall, a former county commissioner who leads the committee.
But committee member Karinthia Harrison said her county commissioners broke the WPLI charter by precluding trade-offs outside WSA boundaries. “Because of that, our interests are not being met,” she said. “In our meeting, conservation has been put to the wayside.”
The public frustration at WPLI boiled over at a Teton County forum where that county’s advisory committee wrestles with the fate of the largest Forest Service study area.
It is illogical to decide the ecological fate of thousands of acres of Forest Service Palisades Wilderness Study Area even under the WPLI rules, biologist Ann Harvey told Teton moderators. Teton County’s advisory committee can’t consider wilderness acreage that extends into Idaho and can’t comment on parts of the WSA in neighboring Lincoln County where those commissioners want state ownership of federal lands. For WPLI purposes an ecological unit was bifurcated once, then again, and now only a portion is under consideration for preservation.
“How does that make sense?” she asked.
One Park County commissioner recognized the potentially explosive standoff in neighboring Teton County. “They’ve got a bomb in their laps,” Jake Fulkerson said on KODI Radio’s “Speak Your Piece” show.
Candidate Cheney promised to carry WPLI legislation
As a candidate for U.S. House in 2016, Liz Cheney pledged to back the county-based wilderness study area review. Cheney did so by responding to written questions posed in 2016 by the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance.
“I applaud the county commissioners for undertaking the WPLA [sic] and making the process as collaborative and inclusive as possible,” Cheney wrote. “I will monitor the process and look forward to being the House sponsor of the legislative recommendations from the county commissioners through the WPLI.”
Since being elected Cheney has introduced one bill that would increase helicopter skiing in the Bridger-Teton and Targhee national forests’ Palisades Wilderness Study Area and has proposed another bill that would strip protection from 58 percent of the 577,504 acres of federal Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas in Wyoming.
Neither proposal was made in coordination with the county advisory groups, members of those groups have said.
Cheney’s actions are “a stick in the spokes” of the statewide review said Jessie Johnson, public lands coordinator with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, one of the eight Sportsmen’s Alliance groups. Muley Fanatics, another member of the Alliance, agreed.
“Frustrated,” the single word Josh Coursey, president and CEO of the mule deer group used to describe his reaction to Cheney’s work. The sentiment comes from being “told one thing and seeing something different,” he said.
That frustration extends to many county leaders, said Park County’s Hall, who participated in a WPLI conference call with Cheney. The group “almost to a person, were irritated with Rep. Cheney and people in the public were also,” he said. “We’re trying to do this ground-up thing and she’s doing it from the top down.”
The Wyoming County Commissioners Association told participants their recommendations would be reviewed by Wyoming’s delegation that would “to the maximum extent practicable, include them in a legislative draft to be introduced in Congress.” Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell recently outlined the process for WyoFile. “The idea that the association had was that when all of the committees were done, they would all get lumped together,” he said, and one piece of federal legislation would advance.
Is the process being rushed?
The Wyoming Wildlife Federation agreed with that schedule and method, Johnson said. “This is now how we thought this process was going to go,” she said of the initiative.
“We all know it is going to be a long process,” Johnson said. “It’s long because it’s an agreement we can all stand behind.”
Cheney is under the gun to get a wilderness bill drafted because of a move afoot by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, according to Teton County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim. Bishop, a vocal critic of federal land ownership, wants to consider a multi-state wilderness bill this spring and summer, the commissioner said.
Cheney believes all counties but Teton may be on board for a spring wilderness bill, spokeswoman Maddy Weast said.
“Congressman Cheney supports the WPLI process and has and will continue to work closely with the County Commissioners across the state,” she said in an email to WyoFile. “We have heard from county commissioners in nearly every county, except Teton, participating in the WPLI that they would like to bring forward their recommendations in a timely fashion so they can be included in legislation we move through the House.”
That timetable conflicts with the original WPLI schedule, which called for recommendations as late as summer of this year.
The Fremont County committee agreed to write Cheney asking “for time to complete our work and consideration of our process,” according to committee minutes. The Carbon County advisory committee’s timeline calls for a public hearing as late, and possibly later than, April 10.
In Washakie County, study group co-chairman Aaron Anderson was uncertain whether Cheney’s involvement has deterred or spurred on participants. “I don’t know that it’s been a big help or hindrance,” he said. “We’re trying to move ahead and just come up with some sort of a recommend because you start to wear out your volunteers.”
Regarding a spring deadline and whether Washakie can meet it, “I can’t answer that,” he said. “The consensus portion of it is pretty difficult just because you have a very diverse group of interests.
“Sometimes it seems like we take one step forward, two steps back. Sometimes it feels like nobody’s happy.”
Wildlife Federation’s Johnson urged respect for the WPLI process, “rather than rushing it along. When you put a time constraint on something like that,” she said, “you put in peril the entire process.”
A new political calculus?
The commissioners’ association invited all Wyoming counties to participate in its initiative, but two key ones — Lincoln and Sweetwater — opted out. Lincoln commissioners favor state ownership of federal lands, seek multiple use in the Palisades, and contest the designation of wilderness study areas by the BLM.
In Sweetwater County, which also boycotted the statewide review, Commissioner Wally Johnson wrote Cheney that his jurisdiction “is also strongly opposed to the Lands with Wilderness Characteristics classification, and that these lands do not exist within our county.” Sweetwater County “greatly appreciates your legislation that will…permanently release these WSAs to multiple use management that more effectively supports our mineral based economy.”
Sweetwater County is on record supporting preservation of portions of Adobe Town, a wilderness study area in the Red Desert, conservationists say. Johnson didn’t sign that resolution in 2008, although two other commissioners did. He wrote “No!” in place of his John Hancock.
“The Adobe Town resolution has not been changed officially,” said Shaleas Harrison, BLM wildlands community organizer for Wyoming Wilderness Association. Harrison sits on the Carbon County advisory committee. (Her sister sits on the Park County committee.)
“He could have joined the [WPLI] process,” Harrison said of Commissioner Johnson.
Cheney listens to voices such as Johnson’s, Weast said. “We have also heard from commissioners in counties that aren’t in the WPLI that they would like quick action to resolve the status of WSAs in their counties,” Weast wrote.
An outline of Cheney’s proposed spring, 2018 bill, prepared by her office and distributed to WPLI commissioners and contacts in December, says it would immediately remove 58 percent of 577,504 acres of BLM wilderness study areas from wilderness consideration. The bill would rely on a 27-year old BLM review to exclude parts or all of 30 BLM study areas from Wilderness protection, the outline says.
Wildlife Federation’s Johnson called that provision “a poison pill for the entire bill.”
That 1991 BLM study involved nine separate environmental impact statements that received a total of 1,693 comments, that are now at least 30 years old. Cheney considers the BLM wilderness study areas “adequately studied,” according to minutes from the Fremont County wilderness committee.
Conditions and attitudes in the last 30 years have changed, said Nick Dobric a staff member with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who sits on the Fremont committee. “Relying on that is a pretty flawed mechanism,” he said, cautioning that he does not represent the committee.
The Lincoln and Sweetwater boycotts create an imbalance in an effort premised upon involvement and consensus across disparate groups, some believe. “I’m not very comfortable with [the activities on] federal lands being decided by small counties,” said Kim Springer, a Wilson climber, skier and mother who looked to wilderness-quality lands across her state. Despite the WPLI pledge of inclusion, conservationists, ‘they won’t have a say,” she said.
Forest Service would have 90 days
In contrast to immediate action on BLM wilderness study areas, the outline of Cheney’s bill says it would give the U.S. Forest Service 90 days to make contemporary recommendations on its study areas. The bill would direct the agency “to collaborate with local stakeholders, such as the WPLI and other county commissioners,” in drafting its recommendation.
There are three Forest Service wilderness study areas in Wyoming — Palisades, Shoal Creek and High Lakes — in Teton, Lincoln, Sublette and Park counties. Any study area that’s not recommended for protection would be open for multiple use, including motorized travel, oil and gas exploration and development, among other uses, the outline of the bill says.
Cheney’s so-called heli-skiing bill, introduced without consultation with county committees, could change current usage in the Forest Service study areas. The bill upset Teton committee members who drafted a letter to Obermueller asking him to tell Cheney to back off.
The Jan. 12 draft asked him to “communicate in writing or in person, to Representative Cheney and perhaps others, encouraging them to await the outcome of the WPLI process.” But the message came three votes shy of earning unanimous consent and was not sent, said Lisa McGhee, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
Cheney doesn’t see herself as interfering, Weast wrote. “As you know, the heli-skiing bill has no impact on the WPLI process,” she wrote. “It simply clarifies existing legislative intent to prevent environmentalist groups from abusing the court system to impose additional restrictions on use. It imposes no limitation on future recommendations that could be made by the Teton or Park County WPLI process.”
When he circulated the outline of Cheney’s pending legislation — the wilderness study bill scheduled to be forged this March or April — Obermueller agreed it could muddy the waters.
“Whether or not it ends your WPLI efforts is largely in the hands of the conservation/environmental groups,” he wrote involved commissioners and contacts. “How they react to the bill will likely dictate the ability to proceed.
“I am aware that the conservation/environmental groups have been pushing many of you to slow down the process. I have resisted that as you know. This bill will require keeping on pace, and perhaps speeding up if it is going to be successful.”
“I still believe that a collaborative approach is both viable and the only path to success, but that is only true if people stay at the table,” Obermueller wrote. But because of the shifting landscape, the Teton committee asked him “for your leadership and support in defending the process you initiated.
“We look to the WCCA to advocate a fair process, one that provides adequate time for groups to come to consensus,” the committee wrote. “We ask that no stakeholder group be singled out or disparaged.”
Conservationist Shaleas Harrison remains skeptical. “The WPLI is not looking that hopeful,” she said. “The process was flawed from the get-go,” even before Johnson County rejected WPLI’s consensus approach for majority-rule. But that was another broken promise, she said.
“WCCA didn’t address the problems with Johnson County early on; they didn’t honor all the rules,” Harrison said. “The charter exists for a reason. They have not been able to show leadership giving the counties the space they need to find solutions that are collaborative.”
Committees need to build consensus, look outside the WSA boundaries, and honor robust public involvement, she said. “If you can’t have those three things, how are we going to meet the interest of all stakeholders?”
The prospect of a consensus outcome remains in doubt. As expressed by Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden on the Cody radio show, his board will make a recommendation, one way or the other. “Hopefully it will be in line with what the committee recommends,” he said. “If not, so be it.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that a draft letter from the Teton WPLI committee to Pete Obermueller failed to gain full endorsement from the committee and was not sent — Ed.