Gov. Mark Gordon and some state legislators are up in arms about the Bureau of Land Management’s recently released proposed land management plan for the Red Desert and surrounding area. Rep. Bill Allemand (R-Midwest) declared that it was the worst disaster in American history, affecting “more people than the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.” For perspective on that outrageous statement: Over 750,000 American citizens were collectively killed in those tragic, historical events — far more people than live in the entire state of Wyoming.
I would hope most Wyomingites are grounded enough to identify alarmist, inflammatory rhetoric when they see it. To suggest that anyone is being killed by a BLM management plan is to offend the memories of real lives lost. We live in a world of hyperbole, with politicians desperate to prove themselves as the most virtuous member of their party. Lucky for those of us who live in Wyoming, we have an abundance of crisp, fresh air. So let’s all take a deep breath and look at the facts.
I was born and raised in Sheridan and permanently reside in Laramie. Wyoming is unique. We are one of the last remaining places that still has space! I always tell outsiders that no one lives in Wyoming for the people. We all live here for the land. Regardless of our political backgrounds, careers or socioeconomic status, those of us who choose to live here, choose it for the landscape. The vast expanse that makes us feel like we are home.
As one of the last high-elevation ecosystems left in North America, the Red Desert is one of these inspiring swaths of Wyoming’s geography. This nearly 6 million acre region is home to the largest living sand dune system in the U.S., the largest migratory herd of pronghorn (50,000) in the lower 48 states and the world’s largest herd of desert elk. Tribal Nations have been living holistically throughout the Red Desert since time immemorial. Native rock art, dating back more than 11,000 years, can still be seen in the Red Desert. The Oregon Trail also passed through this area, and wagon wheel ruts can still be spotted on the landscape.
Recently, the BLM released a draft management plan for the Red Desert that has seemingly caught our politicians off guard. This proposed plan, however, did not materialize out of thin air. Rather, it is the product of a years-long public process beginning in 2011. This has included a 60-day public scoping comment period, four public scoping meetings, an open house and the opportunity to submit nominations for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. The plan has been and will continue to be shaped by public engagement.
There are four proposals in the plan, one of which, Alternative B, the BLM has selected as its preferred choice. Alternative B would prioritize wildlife, conservation, Indigenous cultural areas and historic values within about 60% of the area to be managed by the plan while leaving about 40% open to one or more types of industrial development such as oil and gas, mining and renewable energy.
The BLM’s plan would not affect existing natural resource leases and mines — or their associated jobs and economic benefits. Under Alternative B, 1.4 million acres would remain open to oil and gas development, 223,109 acres for coal mining, 1.8 million acres for oil shale, 1.8 million acres for trona mining and nearly 1.9 million acres for hard rock mining.
By conserving areas where energy development and mining have low economic potential and could conflict with other uses, Alternative B ensures that beloved hiking trails, hunting areas, designated OHV routes and camping spots remain accessible and are not tarnished by industrial development.
Whether or not people in Wyoming want to admit it, the federal land that makes up around 50% of our state is not ours alone. It is our great privilege to live amidst such boundless expanses of untouched land, and it is our duty as Wyoming residents to safeguard what makes Wyoming home. Not what makes us money.
Alternative B is not set in stone and can still be shaped and amended through public comment. When Wyoming politicians attempt to impede this process through inflammatory rhetoric, as well as bills like U.S. Rep. Harriett Hageman’s proposal to preemptively block the draft plan before it’s finalized, they distort the facts and seek to silence the voice of Wyoming citizens. Rather than getting caught up in the flurry of irresponsible and incendiary comments made by politicians with personal agendas, take a moment to learn the facts, and speak up during these public comment periods to provide constructive feedback. Our dignified engagement as citizens will remind politicians representing our state to respect our public due process.
As a board member of Wyoming Wilderness Association, I am proud to say that while we naturally support provisions for wildlands in Alternative B, we are remaining grounded and open-minded by asking the BLM to collaborate with the ranching community and Tribal rights holders to create a durable, actionable plan that protects a wild, working landscape.