New wilderness not welcome in Wyoming, commissioners say

2011-08-03T15:00:00Z 2011-08-03T23:40:05Z New wilderness not welcome in Wyoming, commissioners say

By MARTIN KIDSTON

Gazette Wyoming Bureau

The Billings Gazette

CODY, Wyo. — Saying they have the backing of most area residents, Park County commissioners voted 4-1 this week to not recommend to the Bureau of Land Management any special or unique landscapes for wilderness protection.

The vote, which came after 15 minutes of discussion Tuesday afternoon, places commissioners at odds with conservationists who have asked local, state and federal officials to consider adding some pockets of Wyoming land to areas managed as wilderness.

But county commissioners believe the groups and their constituents represent only a minority of voters. The majority of the public, they argued Tuesday, don’t support use of wilderness designations to achieve long-term protection of Wyoming’s special or critical lands.

“We have more than enough wilderness out there already,” Commissioner Joe Tilden said. “There are some very, very special areas in the BLM that need to be protected, but I think there’s more than enough protection in place already.”

At the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management is asking state and local officials across the West to recommend areas that deserve wilderness protection.

The hope is that by building bipartisan support from the ground up, any recommendations that do surface will pass the 112th Congress, creating the first new wilderness designations in nearly four decades.

“The focus of this effort is to identify lands that have strong backing for protection as wilderness and that might be appropriate for congressional action,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said. “The best ideas for conservation come from the ground up, and we hope this effort will help lay a foundation for a bipartisan wilderness agenda in this Congress.”

But commissioners said they didn’t support the creation of any new wilderness.

“There are all kinds of special places in the county, but I don’t see any of them needing elevation to wilderness,” Commissioner Tim French said. “We’ve got so much wilderness right now in the forest.”

Most commissioners agreed, saying that while areas including Sheep Mountain on the Absaroka Front and some places in the Bighorn Basin are special and deserve protection, current management efforts are strong enough to keep development at bay.

Commissioner Dave Burke disagreed, however, saying that while current efforts have protected the area’s “crown jewels,” as the BLM is now calling them, future pressures may eventually place those areas at risk of being lost.

For that reason, Burke supported wilderness protection for Sheep Mountain, and would consider it for other locations within the basin if they drew enough public support.

“Everybody recognizes these places, but for some reason, as a society, we’re afraid to move forward and say, ‘OK, I want it protected as far into the future as we possibly can,’” Burke said. “I don’t see the obstacle here. The theory, at least of a wilderness, is that it’s permanently protected.”

Backed by their membership, conservation groups across Wyoming have identified lands managed by the BLM they would like to see designated as wilderness and protected into the future.

The groups, which include the Wyoming Wilderness Association, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, along with the faith-based conservation group On Sacred Ground, note that the BLM manages more than 18 million acres of land across Wyoming.

Of that, they said, 15 million acres have already been developed to the point where the land no longer qualifies as wilderness. Protecting roughly 8 percent of what remains, they argue, isn’t asking for much.

“(These areas) represent some of the most critical wildlife habitat, some of the most important archaeological sites and some of the most remote and awe-inspiring recreational areas in the United States,” the groups said in a joint release.

The BLM is accepting recommendations through mid-August, and Burke suggested that commissioners hold a public meeting next week to gather input on what areas the public would like to see protected.

“If we truly want to know what the public wants on this issue, let’s ask them,” Burke said. “We need to do it in an honest, open way.”

Burke’s push for a public meeting didn’t win the support of his fellow commissioners, who said the public has had plenty of chances to offer input during the BLM’s land-planning process.

“I think it would be a huge waste of time,” Commissioner Bucky Hall said. “Anyone who wants to give input probably already has done so to the BLM.”

Even after commissioners voted 4-1 to not recommend any new wilderness, and not to hold any public meetings on the issue, Commissioner Loren Grosskopf pushed to challenge the BLM and Congress to act on or relinquish the state’s existing Wilderness Study Areas.

Scattered across the West, such areas are managed as wilderness but lack an official wilderness designation. Many frustrated county officials refer to them as “de facto wilderness.”

“It irks me that we still have these Wilderness Study Areas and nobody has acted on them,” Grosskopf said. “We should either turn them into wilderness or release them once and for all. If the BLM is going to be considering all this, then it should consider the WSAs first.”

Grosskopf said that while he wants Congress to act on the Wilderness Study Areas, he doesn’t support those areas becoming wilderness. He wants them turned over to the BLM and freed up for multiple uses, which include off-road vehicles, oil and gas and other activities.

“I think we already have more wilderness than we need,” Grosskopf said. “These areas are off limits to oil and gas, off limits to this and that. They should give it back to the BLM and let the BLM manage it as multiple use. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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