CODY, Wyo. — For the first time anyone can remember, county commissioners, conservationists, energy officials and a number of user groups sat down Wednesday night at one table, in one room, to discuss public lands and the many opinions surrounding their use.
While agreement remained elusive, most agreed that such round-table discussions served as a long-overdue starting point to finding middle ground.
"There's a lot of public land issues we need to discuss," said Joe Tilden, a Park County commissioner. "We've been shooting each other in the newspapers now for quite some time. Maybe in the future we won't be in such an adversarial position."
The relationship between county officials and the state's conservation groups has been strained in recent years and little has been accomplished on either side as a result.
But Tilden and Barb Cozzens, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, believe that such face-to-face talks can create a new tone of openness and help identify areas of agreement.
The two worked together to organize the meeting.
"The points that we disagree on shouldn't stop us from moving forward," Cozzens said. "Isolating what we agree on is a good point to start from. I think it's time for us to tell everyone else what we want for our public lands."
Elected officials from Park, Hot Springs, Washakie and Big Horn counties invited to the meeting Marathon Oil, Legacy Reserves, the Guardians of the Range, the NW Wyoming Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance and the Cody Country Snowmobile Association, among others.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition invited members of the Shoshone Backcountry Horsemen, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Wyoming Association of Churches and several outdoor-oriented business owners.
Opinions around the table were frank and far reaching, from the importance of public lands to the region's extractive industries, to preserving the basin's unique landscapes, both alpine and desert.
Stewardship emerged as a common theme and most agreed that a balance of uses was needed, though some remained skeptical of its meaning and the sacrifices middle ground may involve.
"When I hear that word ‘balanced,' what concerns me is that things get more restrictive all the time," said Washakie County Commissioner Terry Wolf. "When it comes to that word 'balanced,' you've got to look at both sides of the issue. If it's not broke, let's not try to fix it."
Others at the table promoted public lands as vital to Wyoming's staple industries, namely oil and gas, mining and ranching. Some felt the industries were under attack by conservationists, or, as one woman put it, the "carnival culture" of environmentalism.
"Industry isn't here to apologize, nor does it need to apologize," said Kathleen Jachowski with Guardians of the Range. "Our lands have been well managed for decades now, and that needs to be recognized. They're not in a condition where they need to be rescued."
Those on the conservation side of the discussion agreed that stewardship of Wyoming's lands has remained relatively strong over more than a century of Euro-American settlement and development. They also agreed with the concept of working landscapes.
But they also warned that population growth, energy development and increased pressure on public lands could take a toll if efforts aren't made to conserve what's left of Wyoming's unique landscapes.
"I think we need to look forward and consider that this is a growing population," said Marshall Dominick, of the 7D Ranch. "Looking ahead, we're going to see more people here. Those places become more and more precious as the earth shrinks and the population grows."
Bruce Fauskee, representing the Shoshone Backcountry Horsemen, said there's room for a wide number pursuits on public lands. But not all uses are suitable for all places.
"The more we use it up, the more that balance goes in the other direction," said Fauskee. "At one time this whole continent was wilderness. Now there's only small pockets left. They're not making any more wilderness."
The round-table talks extended beyond philosophical beliefs on land use and wilderness. Business owners making a living in outdoor recreation, including fishing and outdoor gear, said the region's natural and quiet attractions are good for the economy.
Several county commissioners, along with representatives from oil and gas, also noted the economic benefits received from resource extraction on public lands. They, too, spoke of their role as land stewards.
"I really believe this industry is taken for granted in what it contributes to Wyoming and our communities," said Scott Bliss of Legacy Reserves. "Our focus is on conservation and our focus is on the resources we're trying to extract while trying to operate a successful, profitable business."
Some said energy development has had a detrimental impact on wildlife in some regions of the state, namely in areas around Pinedale and the Powder River Basin.
Neil Thaggard, of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said that without good science and proper planning, some of those problems could make their way into the Bighorn Basin as energy development grows.
"We've got resources out there that are good indicators of land health," Thaggard said. "When that health goes away, we need to be concerned. Our manmade, administrative boundaries don't stop our problems."
Counties across the Bighorn Basin have been engaged in several federal land-planning efforts over the past two years, which has left some community members feeling underrepresented and shut out of the process.
Earlier this year, Gov. Matt Mead's natural resource policy adviser asked county leaders across the Bighorn Basin to work at building a wider coalition of support, which, he said, must include inviting members of the conservation community to the table.
Wednesday's discussion took a step in that direction.
"This is the type of discussion that has to continue," said Rebekah Fitzgerald, representing the governor's office. "These partnerships have to form. That's what makes Wyoming unique, to put these interests in a room and talk about it. It helps inform our office as we look at the state and how we represent you."