Barrasso bill aims to resolve in-limbo wilderness study areas


JACKSON – A statewide effort to reach a consensus about what to do with Wyoming’s wilderness study areas is being revived legislatively more than two years after it ended with an outcome that left many conservationists disgruntled.

The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative did not lead to any consensus recommendations for what should become of Teton County’s portions of the Palisades and Shoal Creek wilderness study areas. 

But committees formed by Campbell, Carbon, Fremont, Hot Springs, Johnson, Natrona and Washakie county commissioners did finalize proposals. 

Altogether, their recommendations would elevate five study areas into wilderness areas totaling 20,381 acres, convert another three areas into “special management areas” that total 27,211 acres and “release” and manage another 99,750 acres of study areas as multiple-use lands.

“Some counties couldn’t agree, but seven of them did, and that’s why we went this way,” U.S. Sen John Barrasso told the News&Guide.

“I’m trying to put it into legislative effect now, basically at the request of the counties,” he said. “We wanted a locally driven process, not Washington stepping in, because my belief is that the people in Wyoming are the best to make the decision about how to treat these lands.”

On May 20 the Republican congressman introduced Senate Bill 1750, which would make law out of the recommendations that emerged from the seven counties, in effect redesignating about 230 square miles of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land. Those expanses have been managed as wilderness study areas since the Wyoming Wilderness Act’s passage 37 years ago, even though the protective classification was intended to be temporary and precede a study of issues that prevented an outright wilderness designation.

“All of that area has been treated as defacto wilderness,” Barrasso said. “None of it has been designated as wilderness. None of it has been designated as any of these things.”

Barrasso’s take is that the seven county recommendations represented the “whole community” and a “broad spectrum of groups.” 

The initiative spanned from 2015 to 2018, and was spearheaded by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.

But some environmentalists who engaged in the process say that the county-level negotiations unraveled and that pro-wilderness parties walked away dissatisfied. Bondurant resident Dan Smitherman, the Wyoming representative for The Wilderness Society, said in a statement that his organization initially supported the county-led planning effort but withdrew that support when the initiative’s leaders didn’t adhere to guidelines intended to foster collaboration.

“The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative gradually deteriorated, and sadly the majority of the county recommendations failed to find common ground,” Smitherman said. “The path to legislative success starts with legitimate collaboration. Congress rewards balanced and pragmatic compromises that have broad support, not one-sided giveaways that sow division and discord.”

Jackson Hole resident Don Saner, of Wyoming Back Country Horsemen, contended in the same press release that Barrasso’s bill hurts the interests of hunters, horsemen and hikers who use the affected study areas.

“The legislation doesn’t pass the sniff test because the ingredients were rotten,” said Saner, who was a member of Teton County’s committee, which ended its discussions in disagreement about land designations.

Not all conservation-oriented groups have condemned the initiative and Barrasso’s attempts to legislate the outcomes.

Trout Unlimited’s North Platte River Water Project manager, Jeff Streeter, was “encouraged” to see coldwater fisheries like the Encampment River and Sweetwater River canyons proposed for stricter protections.

“We look forward to working with the Senator and his staff on this legislation,” Streeter said in a statement. “I appreciate the Senator’s leadership and know that he values public lands as much as his fellow Wyomingites.”

Barrasso’s bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where he’s the ranking member and senior Republican. While it’s unclear how the idea will fare before a tightly split, though Democratic-majority Senate, the new designations might not square with the Biden administration’s “30 by 30” initiative, which aims to conserve 30 percent of the United States’ land and offshore areas — up from 12 percent of land and a quarter of oceans permanently protected today. Senate Bill 1750 reduces protections on the vast majority of the areas it addresses.

Barrasso told the News&Guide that he’s unclear whether his bill would work against the administration’s 30-by-30 goal because he’s not sure what to make of the initiative, which he described as vague.

“I’ve asked the secretary (Deb Haaland) at the Department of Interior, ‘What exactly is defined as protected area?’” Barrasso said. “They’re talking about offshore wind turbines at the same time they’re talking about protecting shorelines.”

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