U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney last month introduced a bill to extinguish half the wilderness study acreage in Wyoming to the cheers of some officials and the dismay of supporters of county-level citizen working groups. Perhaps nowhere is the divide so evident as in Sweetwater County, site of more than half the acreage affected by Cheney’s bill.
Titled the “Restoring Public Input and Access to Public Lands Act of 2018,” HR 6939 would remove wilderness study designation and associated protections from approximately 400,000 federal acres in Lincoln, Big Horn and Sweetwater counties. The three counties declined to participate in a years-long consensus-based investigation of the wildlands.
Saying the wilderness-study designation “prevents access, locks up land and resources, restricts grazing rights, and hinders good rangeland and resource management,” Cheney introduced her measure Sept. 27. It marked the third time she bypassed the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative sponsored by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. Across the state, 777,766 acres of BLM and Forest Service property are protected by wilderness study designation.
WPLI sought a single statewide wilderness bill to resolve study-area status. A majority of commissioners in the three counties, however, responded to Cheney’s early 2018 call for legislation before the WPLI process played out. In Sweetwater County the request to abolish the environmentally protective designation came on a 3-2 vote.
On that margin, the board asked Cheney to support re-designation of 234,224 acres of BLM wilderness study areas — more than half the WSA acreage in the three counties.
The home of oil and gas fields, mines, ranches, motorized recreation and an avid outdoor recreation community, Sweetwater County can be seen as a microcosm of the larger conflict.
“It’s time for Congress to act,” Sweetwater County Commissioner Wally Johnson said. If politicians had moved earlier, he could have supported a recommendation that included some wilderness designations, he said.
Now, however, “I strongly support what Rep. Cheney has done,” he said.
Not all of his colleagues agree.
“When Rep. Cheney decided she was going to introduce a bill, it kind of forced us into taking a position,” commissioner Reid West said.
Sweetwater declined in 2016 to try and resolve the matter locally through the WPLI process — in part because of an ongoing BLM resource management plan update and fears that WPLI could lead to a selloff of public property. Conservationists criticized a Utah public-lands initiative as having that goal.
“We thought [WPLI] was premature,” West said. Subsequently, Sweetwater was pushed by Cheney’s legislative timeline, he said.
Although Johnson said some 200 persons commented to the commission before his colleagues voted for action by Cheney, West was unsatisfied and opposed her involvement. “I felt we should not take a position without taking more public comment,” he said.
Cheney’s critics deride the bill, starting with its title’s nod to public input, which they called misleading. Instead of being carried on a wave of inclusive, local support, the Wilderness Society characterized it as a “top-down, one-sided measure.” Barry Reiswig of Wyoming Back Country Horsemen said in a statement the measure was dead on arrival for his organization because Cheney “failed to engage a diversity of Wyoming sportsmen, backcountry users and other citizens.”
All told, the bill would abolish WSA status across 61,379 acres of BLM property in Big Horn County, 95,740 acres of Forest Service and BLM property in Lincoln County, and the 234,445 acres in Sweetwater County. (WyoFile calculations of the affected acreage differ slightly from those of conservationists; Cheney didn’t specify an acreage in announcing the bill and WyoFile did not receive a response to interview requests from Cheney’s office.)
The bill also would require all federal lands in Wyoming classified as “lands with wilderness characteristics,” or identified through federal planning as “having wilderness characteristics” to no longer be managed under a “non-impairment standard.”
WyoFile did not receive responses to requests to several federal agencies to outline the extent of those additionally affected lands. But Shaleas Harrison of the Wyoming Wilderness Association calculated that the clauses in Cheney’s bill cover 700,000 acres of BLM land and 3.3 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on national forests in Wyoming.
Because they are federal properties, the areas shouldn’t be managed solely at the direction of area residents, said Tim Preso, managing attorney for the Northern Rockies Office of Earthjustice.
“This is land that belongs to all Americans just as much as Valley Forge,” Preso said. “I think it’s an odd result to have these local sentiments override that interest.”
Cheney’s bill “has a lot of support in the state from county commissioners,” said Harrison, whose work focuses on BLM lands. “The county commissioners really want control of federal lands. This is a movement that is not new. This has been going on for 30 years.”
The public wants some elements of preservation in Sweetwater County, she said, counting all but five of some 60 letters to commissioners as supporting protection of study areas. Public comment at a hearing was divided, she said, an assessment disputed by other stakeholders.
“There’s only one Adobe Town,” she said. “There’s only one set of shifting sand dunes, only one Devil’s Playground.
“This is our history,” she said. “These are cultural relics. To disallow them for industrial, motorized use, it is just really tragic and devastating.”
In announcing her legislation, Cheney included endorsements from numerous entities. “The interest of our members, as ranchers, out on these lands, has been negatively impacted by the WSA designation because these lands have been managed as de facto wilderness,” Jim Magagna, Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President, is quoted as saying in a Cheney-office statement.
Wilderness-study designations “have needlessly limited access and multiple-use,” the Petroleum Association of Wyoming told Cheney, according to her press release. “…[H]opefully they will become a much-needed revenue source for Wyoming and the Federal Government.”
Many of those quoted supported Cheney’s assertion that limiting development on lands with “wilderness characteristics” constituted an abuse of federal authority. “Federal lands that have not been formally designated by Congress as wilderness should be managed under the multiple-use mandate to provide for the public good,” she quoted Zippy Duval, the president of American Farm Bureau Federation, as saying.
Jonathan Schick, owner of High Mountain Heli-Skiing, also backs Cheney’s bill in the congresswoman’s announcement. Cheney’s measure is supported by “many constituents whose chosen form of recreation has been gradually litigated and pushed to the point of being fazed [sic] out,” his statement said. The Wyoming Mining Association added, “our federal land resources should always be managed in a manner consistent with the policy of multiple-use to allow for a variety of activities such as mining, agriculture and recreation.”
Cheney critics say federal laws required creating special designations and mandate that the acreages are catalogued, updated and kept track of. “The agencies are just implementing what Congress directed,” Preso said.
Wilderness Association staffer Harrison said land managers “have to keep an inventory of all the resources,” a requirement Cheney’s bill would abolish. As an employee in such a position, “that’s your job,” she said.
Cheney’s bill also would bifurcate ecological units, Preso said, making county boundaries “the key delineation,” in land-use management. The Forest Service’s 134,417-acre Palisades Wilderness Study Area, for example, set aside by Cheney’s father, then-Rep. Dick Cheney, in the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act, would lose 62,637 acres of protection in Lincoln County, but not in Teton County.
“The Palisades is one intact unit of national forest roadless [country] of extreme natural values that don’t stop at county lines,” Preso said. He called Cheney’s bill “an extreme, arbitrary approach,” to managing a block of wild ecosystem.
Whether there’s a ton of money to be made or resources to be extracted from wilderness study areas is unknown. Wyoming State Geologist Erin Campbell’s website maps numerous oil and gas fields and mines in southwest Wyoming, including Sweetwater County. Five large natural gas developments are underway in the Green River Basin that extends into Sweetwater County and surrounding lands, she reports. Anadarko’s Blacks Fork project and Jonah Energy’s Normally Pressured Lance project alone would drill 11,000 wells.
But nobody’s asked her what resources Sweetwater’s wilderness study areas hold. It would be a difficult question to answer without millions of dollars in exploratory investments. “We have not had a request for that,” she said of a Sweetwater resource accounting.
One recreation specialist believes there isn’t much of value that’s been kept off limits. Vernon E. Lovejoy, a consultant and former federal employee with the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management, assembled an exhaustive inventory of BLM wilderness study areas in Wyoming that’s available on the WPLI website.
“The WSAs have restricted some efforts at mineral exploration over the past 35 years,” he wrote. “However, based on the GIS analysis in this report, the WSAs have never been valuable production areas. Even before the WSA program was established, wells were drilled in WSAs, but none were ever productive and all are now abandoned.”
The BLM itself in the early 1990s recommended at least 68,303 acres in Sweetwater County be designated as wilderness, plus the Honeycomb Buttes which are partly in Fremont County.
Sweetwater’s Johnson agreed petroleum reserves in one site — Adobe Town — may be limited, but nearby there are real plays with “great oil-and-gas potential.” To be sure, “I’d have to defer to those people in the oil and gas business,” he said.
Johnson appears frustrated with federal management, pointing to the designation of “lands with wilderness characteristics” as overreach. “Where that came from is beyond me,” he said. “Somebody in the BLM is making that decision. I don’t agree with that.”
As far as WPLI, he doesn’t see that undertaking by nine counties as a solution. “Look at all the other counties,” he said, many of which remain locked in disagreement or have deviated from the original WPLI charter. “Have they made a recommendation yet?”
Carbon County has recommended a mix of wilderness, special management, wilderness study and other designations.
“I believe we’re elected to make decisions and that’s what we’ve done,” Johnson said.
Sweetwater County Commission Chairman West understands where his colleagues are coming from. “They also felt there are some other designations [besides wilderness or wilderness study] that could be applied to those lands,” he said. “They could possibly have some other protections put on them by the BLM.”
“I just felt like we were rushed into making a decision that has big ramifications,” West said. “It’s the type of subject matter we needed to take a lot of public comment [on] to make it right.”