U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s proposed legislation to protect 20,381 acres of wilderness in four Wyoming counties disappoints conservationists who say its official designation of about 14 percent of eligible areas it addresses is flawed.
The Republican’s Wyoming Public Lands Initiative Act of 2021 would designate five wilderness areas in Carbon, Fremont, Washakie and Big Horn counties. It would release 99,750 acres of protected Wilderness Study Area acres for multiple uses like logging and oil and gas development.
The measure also would create three special management areas covering 27,711 acres. Regulations there would limit major development but allow some activities that otherwise would be excluded in wilderness areas.
The measure falls short, conservationists said, vowing to oppose its passage. “We are committed that a bill that’s bad for Wyoming is opposed and rejected,” said Julia Stuble, Wyoming public lands and energy associate for The Wilderness Society.
If passed, the measure would expand wilderness protections in the state for the first time since 1984 when U.S. Sens. Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop and U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney — all Republicans — cosponsored the Wyoming Wilderness Act which added 880,000 acres to the wilderness system.
All told, Barrasso’s measure addresses 147,842 acres of wilderness study areas on Bureau of Land Management land in seven Wyoming counties, according to WyoFile calculations. Some 32 percent of the study areas considered in the bill would be protected or somewhat protected from multiple-use development.
Barrasso’s bill builds on the contentious Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, a county-by-county effort launched by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association in 2015. WPLI sought to identify which of Wyoming’s 758,044 federal Wilderness Study Area acres should be forever protected.
The legislation would address about 20 percent of Wyoming’s WSA acreage. Wilderness designation preserves wild lands in their natural condition where motorized and mechanized travel are barred and where there is no permanent human occupation or structures.
Barasso’s bill would create Prospect Mountain and Encampment River wilderness areas in Carbon County, covering 1,110 and 4,543 acres respectively. It would establish the Upper and Lower Sweetwater Canyon wilderness areas in Fremont County across 8,512 acres.
The bill would bifurcate the Bobcat Draw Wilderness Study Area in Washakie and Big Horn counties, designating 6,216 acres as wilderness and releasing 7,692 for multiple use.
In addition to the counties in which new wilderness areas would be created, the bill covers BLM study areas in Campbell, Johnson and Natrona counties.
The release of 127,461 acres of wilderness study lands for multiple use or other non-wilderness activities troubles conservationists.
Those landscapes have been protected for decades as wilderness study areas.
Conservationists have criticized the WPLI process saying that only a single county — Carbon — came to a valid conclusion under WPLI ground rules requiring a consensus from a diverse committee of stakeholders.
“We think the process behind this bill was flawed,” Stuble said. Public comment was disregarded, people were shut out of the process and there was no consultation with the Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho tribes or other indigenous groups whose native lands are affected, she said.
Wyoming Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said the Fremont County WPLI group backpedaled on the agreement to consult with Native Americans before finalizing its recommendation.
“It is extremely troublesome that this [recommendation] would now serve as the basis for federal legislation,” she said in a statement.
The Wyoming Wilderness Association also “strongly opposes” the bill, Associate Director Peggie dePasquale said in an email. “The outcome of 90-percent loss of wilderness-level protection is not the result of a functional collaborative process, and certainly does not represent a balanced compromise,” she wrote.
Barrasso hailed the 62-page measure that he introduced May 20 as one that would “remove federal roadblocks that have stalled the future of wilderness lands in Wyoming” and “locked up” wilderness lands for more than 30 years.
“Locally driven processes like the WPLI give people in Wyoming the best chance to decide how to treat these lands,” Barrasso said in a statement. “This bill strikes a balance between protecting the places people in Wyoming love while expanding multiple-use areas that our state relies on.”
A Trout Unlimited manager, the county commissioners’ association and some individual commissioners endorsed Barrasso’s proposed act, which the senator unveiled some two years after the WPLI concluded. Trout Unlimited North Platte River Water Project Manager Jeff Streeter said in a statement last month his group looks forward to working with Barrasso on the bill.
Fremont Public Lands Chair Doug Thompson countered criticism of the WPLI process. “Local citizen committee members sought and considered public input, shared their thoughts and desires in a respectful forum, and made every effort to reach consensus,” he said in a statement endorsing the measure.
WPLI committee members “dedicated countless hours,” to reach “detailed and thoughtful proposals,” Wyoming County Commissioners Association Executive Director Jerimiah Rieman said in a statement.
While Barrasso’s bill might reflect the desires some in Wyoming have for management of federal land that belongs to all Americans, debate in Congress, should it occur, would invite the views of all 3,143 counties in the U.S.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.