SUBLETTE COUNTY – The future of the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area being contemplated by a citizens’ committee could range from designating it all as “new wilderness” to “no new wilderness” – or something in between.
And even “something in between” is debated at each meeting of the Sublette Wyoming Public Lands Initiative’s advisory committee, which is reviewing three stalled WSA designations to recommend their future management – Shoal Creek, Scab Creek and Lake Mountain.
The advisory committee has recognized that compromise will be needed to reach consensus – that “all or nothing” solutions of total wilderness or full release would not be acceptable.
At the Sublette WPLI’s Feb. 7 meeting, however, two county officials – one a liaison and the other a committee member – related their departments’ public-lands policies against new wilderness and for traditional and modern multiple uses.
Sublette County Commissioner and WPLI liaison Joel Bousman told the committee that he isn’t sure the board will approve any Shoal Creek recommendation that adds designated “wilderness” to the adjacent Gros Ventre Wilderness. The Shoal Creek WSA is located east of Bondurant mainly in the Hoback Basin.
Many committee members were unaware of the 2009 Sublette County Federal and State Land Use Policy, which states: “No additional federal lands in Sublette County are suitable for wilderness designation other than the vast expanse of existing wilderness areas in the county. Sublette County opposes any such further designations.”
“I took it to the other commissioners, if this (committee’s proposal) contains any wilderness, will they entertain it,” Bousman said. “The message they left me with is ‘we the commission will take it under consideration.’ At a minimum you need the strong support of this board.”
Strong public support for some new wilderness in Sublette County would be taken into account, he added.
Motorized recreation member Bill Lanning asked Bousman for “more clarification on ‘strong support.’”
“Get reactions from your groups and hopefully from people living in that area,” Bousman replied.
Sublette WPLI committee’s eight members represent motorized and nonmotorized recreation, conservation, agriculture/ ranching, sportsmen, energy, conservation district and general public interests.
Most of the Shoal Creek WSA is in Sublette County with about 11,000 acres in Teton County. That county’s WPLI 21-member advisory group also has made proposals.
Earlier this year, Teton WPLI “general public” member Rob Shaul proposed the entire Shoal Creek WSA become wilderness, according to Sublette advisory members.
Sublette County Conservation District manager Mike Henn, on the WPLI advisory committee, related that he showed his elected board of supervisors one proposed Shoal Creek WSA map with added wilderness.
That board is very reluctant to add wilderness and would prefer full release back to Forest Service multiple-use management, he said.
The SCCD policy states in part, “Sublette County supports the expeditious resolution of pending congressional wilderness designation proposals for BLM (WSAs) in Sublette County and supports the release of (WSAs) not recommended for wilderness designation
from non-impairment management. There shall be no protective perimeters or buffer zones around wilderness areas. …”
“They voted, 4-1, to support their policy statement – no new wilderness in the county,” Henn said. “That’s where I have to sit; if it comes to a vote I will take it back to this board.”
General public member Dave Bell reminded them different groups were okay about adding 5,400 acres of new wilderness west to the Elbow, a feature of the Gros Ventre Range.
Lanning said his motorized recreation group could support that and also wants the Forest Service to reopen “closed roads” in the Hoback Basin.
Then Coke Landers, ag/ ranching committee member and co-chair, reported back from the Feb. 6 meeting of the Hoback Cattle Association, whose members hold Forest Service grazing permits in the Hoback Basin, including Shoal Creek WSA.
Permittees heard of a concept to extend a designated wilderness portion farther west along the Gros Ventre Wilderness boundary, and designating the rest as a “national recreation area” with multiple uses written in.
“They unanimously voted ‘no new wilderness or designation,’” Landers said. “That’s my constituency.”
Forest Service range specialist Chad Hayward, at the Hoback meeting, explained on Feb. 7 two different grazing associations there can’t clear trails and fencelines because of the WSA ban on chainsaws.
At the WPLI meeting, Roberts Cattle Company family members from Daniel did not support adding new wilderness at Shoal Creek.
They also spoke against the national recreation area designation, saying it “advertises” the remote backcountry to attract more development, more people and possible conflicts with permittees. The committee pondered how to proceed without wilderness.
“So we’re done,” said Dan Smitherman, Sublette co-chair (and Teton) WPLI conservation member. “We just say it’s a WSA and walk out of here.”
Energy member Mike Smith replied, “It’s nobody’s fault, but we’ve got folks that participate that can’t support it.”
Lanning said he sensed “some leeway.”
“I’m not going to vote for no new wilderness,’” Smitherman said.
Henn said he wasn’t “throwing a clog” in the Sublette WPLI’s months of work. “If wilderness is kept to a minimum, it’s not a 5 (vote totally against). I’m being up front and transparent and we can work on it.”
“We’re not done,” Landers said.
“I absolutely hope not,” Bell said.
Facilitator Steve Smutko reminded them: “As you work together and figure out compromises, you are often outpacing your constituents. Once we make that agreement, how do you see that through and commit to it?”
He asked them to take the day’s discussions back to their constituents.
“That’s putting a big target on our backs,” Landers commented.
Smutko said if they can find a Shoal Creek WSA proposal they all support, “then it’s up to you to support it, if you think it’s right.”
After much more discussion about different options, Smitherman said he wants a proposal that will protect all three WSAs’ values. The group took a short break.
“We can move to a ‘4’ with 5,400 acres of wilderness and no national recreation area designation,” Landers said after talking to the Roberts family.
“Let’s call it a special management area,” Smitherman said. “I’m not hung up on what we call it.”
Hayward explained he lacks experience with special management areas, but one could be written to include and protect numerous interests. The Forest Service is just beginning its new Bridger-Teton National Forest long-term plan, which might unexpectedly change the status quo, he added.
In the last hour, the committee returned to discussing the Lake Mountain WSA.
The statewide initiative was kick-started by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and signed onto by the Sublette Board of County Commissioners. Commissioners must approve each WSA’s management recommendations before they are packaged for possible legislation before Congress. Many WSAs across the West have languished since being “inventoried” as potential wilderness decades ago by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
The Sublette WPLI advisory committee meets again on Wednesday, Feb. 21, and again on March 7, 1 to 5 p.m., at the Sublette County Weed & Pest Office, 12 South Bench Rd. Every meeting has two public comment periods.
For agendas and more information, go to www.sublettewpli.org.