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CODY, Wyo. — Wyoming’s four Bighorn Basin counties are accusing the Interior Department of trying to create new wilderness without congressional approval by directing the Bureau of Land Management to inventory its wildlands and manage them for their wilderness characteristics.

While that appears to be the prevailing opinion in northern Wyoming, not all commissioners or members of the public agree, and not everyone views Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s use of the term “wildlands” as cause for alarm.

The differences of interpretation surfaced recently when Park County commissioners gathered to discuss the BLM’s new resource management plan and Salazar’s order directing the agency to update its wildlands inventory.

Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden, who returned last month from a conference of Western states where Salazar’s order was discussed, told commissioners that most of those who attended see the order as illegal.

“What was very disturbing to the people down there is that it ... creates a new classification of lands, wildlands,” Tilden said.

As Tilden sees it, use of the term “wildlands” is an attempt to create de facto wilderness by usurping the authority of Congress. If that’s the goal — and if it’s successful — Tilden said it could potentially stifle the state’s oil and gas industry by setting areas off limits to drilling.

But commissioners don’t all agree that the term wildlands is any different from saying “lands with wilderness characteristics,” a designation that has been employed since the 1970s.

While it may be an argument in semantics, Park County Commissioner Dave Burke said, the public will ultimately decide BLM’s new resource management plan and any new wildlands identified within it once it’s released.

“Essentially, lands with wilderness characteristics are still a consideration of wildlands,” said Burke. “What I like about Salazar’s order is that it will force this process into the public, eventually.”

RMP and wildlands

In the past, the Bighorn Basin has been managed by BLM field offices in Cody and Worland using three separate resource management plans.

During the current revision, however, the BLM is expected to fold all three plans into one Bighorn Basin document, setting land-use policies for the next 15 to 20 years.

The BLM was in the process of preparing its new plan when Salazar issued Secretarial Order 3310. Released in December, the order directs the BLM to maintain an inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics and to designate those lands as wildlands.

Like Tilden, Park County Commissioner Tim French is troubled by Salazar’s order. Many areas that could be designated as wildlands, he said, aren’t true wilderness and shouldn’t be labeled as such.

Many of the areas, he said, already contain gas and oil wells, along with roads and other trappings of development.

“I enjoy wilderness just as much as the next individual, but that’s not my view of wilderness,” French said. “When you get down to the definition of wildlands and what the management policy on these lands is going to be — that’s the point in question.”

The Bighorn Basin includes 11 areas designated by the BLM as Wilderness Study Areas, which together encompass around 290,000 acres.

In its latest inventory, the BLM has further identified around 240,000 acres of potential wildlands. If all the areas were combined, and if Congress moved to protect them with an official wilderness designation, it would encompass roughly 11 percent of the Bighorn Basin’s 5 million acres.

Environmentalists say Salazar’s wildlands policy represents an appropriate compromise with an oil and gas industry that has claims over significant portions of Western land.

“This is a reasonable balance to ensure that development continues on 89 percent of the lands while protecting a small portion for multiple uses like hunting, fishing, recreation and habitat,” said Hilary Eisen of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

“We’re not saying oil and gas isn’t important, or that it doesn’t have its place in the basin, or that it won’t continue to have a place in the basin. But it’s not the only thing in the basin, and we think it’s important to note that.”

The basin as landscape

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The wildlands debate reaches beyond the Bighorn Basin. It’s been the subject of news stories by The New York Times and National Public Radio, among others. It has officials from many Rocky Mountain states working to oppose Salazar’s order, while others push to support it.

Matt Garrington of Checks and Balances, an energy and accountability project based in Denver, said oil and gas companies have leases on nearly 30 million acres of public lands in the West.

Two-thirds of the industry’s leased land, or nearly 20 million acres, sits unused, he said.

In 2010, according to Salazar, around 5,000 permits were issued for drilling on Western public lands. Another 7,000 will be issued this year. Salazar said that represents an 11 percent increase in production from 2005 to 2009.

Garrington said many leaders in the West, from governors to county-level officials, aren’t taking that into consideration when they attempt to block what others see as a balanced energy approach.

“If you take a step back from some of the reactions and look at the facts, energy production is actually increasing on public lands,” Garrington said.

“The simple truth is that Salazar has brought some common sense to energy production that not only protects our outdoor industries, but also allows oil and gas to increase production.”

The Wyoming Outdoor Council also argues that updating the wildlands inventory is in the best interest of Wyoming hunters. It would help sustain Wyoming’s $2.5 billion tourism and recreation industry, the council says.

The debate will likely linger long after the BLM releases its new resource management plan. French, who represents Park County in that process, said the plan should be released at any time for public review.

“They’re basically begging them to get that (RMP) out so everybody can comment on it,” French said. “That’s the next big phase, for the public to comment and the co-operators to tell their side of it.”

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

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