Liz Howell heads into Rock Creek area of the Bighorn Mountains outside Sheridan. The area was not included in the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act. Howell hopes it will someday be designated as wilderness. (courtesy Liz Howell — click to enlarge)

Wyoming Wilderness Act is 30 years old

By Kelsey Dayton
— August 5, 2014

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act which established federal protections on lands across the United States, and created the Bridger and Teton wildernesses on the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the North Absaroka and the South Absaroka (now called the Washakie) Wildernesses on the Shoshone National Forest.

Kelsey Dayton

It also is the 30th anniversary of the Wyoming Wilderness Act which established most of the rest of Wyoming’s wilderness areas, including Cloud Peak, Popo Agie, Gros Ventre and Jedediah Smith. Peaks to Plains caught up with three advocates of the 1984 bill to find out what made wilderness important to them then, and what they think the future holds for wilderness in Wyoming.

Liz Howell, Sheridan

Liz Howell owned a horse and a dog, and every weekend she could she ventured into what is now the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Living in Denver her parents bought a cabin in Story when she was 14 years old and her summers were spent exploring the nearby mountains. Her dad was from Worland. He knew the Bighorn Mountains.

“He knew they were special,” Howell said.

It didn’t take long for her to learn that, too.

In her 20s Howell moved to Story full-time, riding her horse directly from town to the mountains (she didn’t own a trailer).

At a community gathering in 1984, Mark Gordon, who is now State Treasurer, sat on a desk with a beer in hand and talked about roadless areas, wilderness and Howell’s beloved Bighorn Mountains. Inspired she and a friend set up a card table in front of a sporting goods store on Main Street with a petition for a hearing to designate the Cloud Peak and Rock Creek areas as wilderness.

“You see things change so fast in Wyoming with the oil industry and logging,” she said. Wilderness designation offered a way to permanently protect the places she loved.

They collected 400 names in three days. Howell traveled to Washington D.C. to testify about the area and the proposed Wyoming Wilderness Act as a citizen lobbyist.

When the Wyoming Wilderness Act passed, it included the Cloud Peak area, but Rock Creek was excluded. She doesn’t know exactly what happened. It was “political shenanigans,” behind closed doors, she said.

Howell’s work on the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act led to a job with the Sierra Club, but Wyoming needed a local voice. The Wyoming Wilderness Association formed in the 1970s to coordinate efforts for more wilderness areas in the state. It evaporated after the 1984 law passed and emerged again in the 1990s to provide clout for those advocating for roadless areas on the Shoshone National Forest.

In 2003 Howell brought the organization back to life again, this time making it a 501(c)(3), opening an office in Sheridan and appointing a board of directors. She retired last year and the organization continues to work for wilderness, specifically the Rock Creek area that left out of the bill 30 years ago.

Howell said there will be no more landmark bills such as the Wyoming Wilderness Act. It’s a different game today. Work to protect land must be done at the forest planning level, designating areas as roadless or putting management practices in place to protect wilderness. But it’s not enough, said Howell. Only federal protections can truly preserve the land.

“Even though wilderness is so damn hard to get, it’s still important,” she said.

She believes it’s a message the next generation understands. Young people, including her son, go to the University of Wyoming and settle in the state because they love the outdoors and understand the value of public lands.

“I feel more hopeful there is a generation that is out there that is going to change things,” Howell said.

Harold Turner, Jackson Hole

Harold Turner (courtesy Wyoming Public Media)

Harold Turner isn’t exactly the type of person you’d imagine advocating for wilderness. He doesn’t like wolves or regulations limiting his access to land, and if you ask him, there are way too many grizzlies.

Yet in 1984 Turner found himself in Washington D.C. lobbying on behalf of the Wyoming Wilderness Act, specifically the Gros Ventre area. Turner didn’t actually want the area wilderness at the time. He wanted a special recreation designation that would prioritize recreation and allow only limited grazing and timber harvesting. He’d seen the impacts of logging in clear-cutting that occurred near his family’s ranch, the Triangle X (owned by the National Park Service since 1950) located near Moose. He saw a special designation as a compromise, but he couldn’t gather any political support.

“I decided if I was going to cut down the logging, wilderness was the only choice,” he said.

Turner and his family have guided trips into what is now the Teton Wilderness, designated under the 1964 federal Wilderness Act, since John S. Turner started the ranch in 1926. Their pack trips are special because they take people to roadless areas, places that remain untrammeled and pristine where they can hear the sounds of the wild- the animals, birds and insects. It’s an experience you can get in few other places.

Its also an experience Harold Turner wishes more people could have but can’t because of the regulations and limits on party size and stock.

“We are trying to manage our wilderness as though nobody has been in there before, which is false,” he said. “More people lived in the wilderness 100 years ago than visit them now. We need to allow a little more of man’s foot print in there.”

Turner doesn’t want roads. Nor does he want energy development. But he wants less limitations.

“It would be a shame to have buildings and roads,” he said. “But should they have done some helicopter timbering from the burns? Damn right they should. It would have helped the forest and the local economy. Should we be able to use chain saws? Yes.”

Should there be more wilderness in Wyoming?

“I guess (my answer) kind of depends on the time of day,” Turner said. “In all honesty, right now we have enough.”

Turner there might be no end to what advocates want to designate as wilderness.

“Kids down the road are going to be making the decisions,” Turner said. “And if they are not enthralled with it, we are going to lose it all. They’re going to think, ‘If we can’t use ‘em, why have ‘em?’”

As for the clear-cut areas that drove Turner to lobby for the Wyoming Wilderness Act? “Now that I look back on it, those areas actually look kinda darn good,” he said.

But despite his gripes, Turner said he’s glad the land is protected and he wouldn’t change his role in advocating for wilderness. He just likely won’t be pushing for any more.

Loring Woodman sits in the Gros Ventre Mountains, sometime in the 1970s. Woodman, who owned the Darwin Ranch, became one of the state’s biggest advocates for the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the act passing. (courtesy Loring Woodman — click to enlarge)
Loring Woodman sits in the Gros Ventre Mountains, sometime in the 1970s. Woodman, who owned the Darwin Ranch, became one of the state’s biggest advocates for the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the act passing. (courtesy Loring Woodman — click to enlarge)

Loring Woodman, Wilson

Beginning in 1965 Loring Woodman ran the Darwin Ranch, deep in the southeast corner of the Gros Ventre Mountains. The area was undeveloped and untouched, and even then considered a rarity in the lower 48. His guests didn’t mind the work it took to get to the remote location. In fact, they came because of the isolation.

Then Woodman heard rumblings about a plan to clear cut near the ranch. Woodman bought the ranch thinking the area would be left untouched, then he saw everything changing.

“Who would bother to go driving over terrible roads to get into a place where you are surrounded by industrial America?” he said. “The area would no longer have the magic associated with a truly wild environment.”

Worried about what it would do to his business he tried to persuade the Forest Service that logging was inappropriate. Worried the agency wouldn’t listen he approached Wyoming’s congressional delegation about protecting the area.

“The (Forest Service) is a huge agency and no one can speak to what they are going to do in the future,” Woodman said. “If I wanted to save the forest, there really wasn’t another choice.”

Efforts were already underway on a bill to designate other areas in Wyoming wilderness, so advocates added the Gros Ventre. There was excellent fishing and hunting and no sign of people, other than the ranch buildings and an old pioneer wagon road established in the 1930s. If Woodman hadn’t lived on the edge of the area, the logging might have proceeded, unnoticed and unchallenged.

Loring Woodman, in the Gros Ventre Wilderness, circa 1995. Woodman operated a guest ranch, which he wanted to protect from timber harvest by designating the area as wilderness. (courtesy Loring Woodman — click to enlarge)

His advocacy was motivated to save his business and an area that had become special to him. He said he’s glad it remains protected, even now after he sold the ranch in February. He knows the designation benefits the wildlife and offers a chance for future generations to see natural places. Preserving wild places is worth it, he said.

Woodman worked hard to show the economic benefits of keeping wild places in the state. If there is to be more wilderness, proponents will need to show how it benefits business and creates jobs. Management will also need to find a balance between preserving an area and still making it user-friendly.

Some people feel that the restrictions that apply to wilderness areas discourage people from experiencing them. That doesn’t bode well for more land earning protections, Woodman said. “Wilderness preservation in American will depend on how many people can get into wilderness and use it.”

This story was corrected to reflect that Howell moved to Story when she moved full-time to Wyoming in her 20s.

Want to learn more?

The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources is hosting a panel discussion on the history and politics of the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 10 at the College of Agriculture Auditorium at the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Thanks for the correction. Story is a mountain community that dead ends at the National Forest.

  2. nice article, thanks Kelsey. I was living in Story, WY in the 70’s, not Sheridan (until 2001), hence the ability to ride from my cabin into the mountains.