PINEDALE – Sublette County commissioners opened a public hearing Monday, Oct. 8, to hear citizens’ mostly critical comments about the two-year process undertaken by the Sublette advisory committee for the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative.
About 30 people attended but only five addressed commissioners about the committee and its submission of three proposals. The proposals resulted from non-consensus votes on how to manage the county’s three wilderness study areas.
Commenters criticized the committee’s non-consensus outcome, its makeup and the process itself. Some stated members were biased against designating wilderness from the WSAs, which have languished after being inventoried decades ago by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.
The three WSAs the Sublette WPLI committee examined in depth from August 2016 through June are the BLM’s Lake Mountain and Scab Creek WSAs and the Forest Service’s Shoal Creek WSA. Commissioners chose its members after asking for applicants to represent conservation, agriculture, motorized recreation, nonmotorized recreation, energy, general public, sportspeople and the Sublette County Conservation District.
The county’s voluntary participation was kicked off by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association with the mission to gather WSA management proposals statewide for a single legislative package.
Commission Chair Andy Nelson opened the meeting in the Lovatt Room, introducing co-chair Coke Landers (agriculture). All committee members attended except Dave Bell (general public); they were
Mike Crosson (sportspeople), Mike Henn (SCCD), Dan Smitherman (conservation), Mike Smith (energy) and Bill Lanning (motorized recreation). Ruckelshaus Institute facilitator Steve Smutko also did not attend.
With monthly meetings, field trips and visiting experts, the committee approached each WSA separately and agreed first on the Lake Mountain proposal. The Shoal Creek WSA process was also fairly amenable with varying acreages added to the Gros Ventre Wilderness.
However, later meetings grew contentious in discussions about Scab Creek WSA, which most felt could be sufficiently protected as a national conservation area, allowing public access for recreation and intensive treatment plans against invasive weeds taking shape with county, state and federal agencies.
Starting out as separate topics, Scab Creek ended up tied to Shoal Creek. With numerous “5” votes for and against total wilderness there or a national conservation areas, the group chose to submit three sets of proposals – Options 1, 2 and 3 – and their votes on those packages. Those are posted at the Sublette County website under Commissioners and WPLI.
The Lake Mountain WSA recommendation is the only constant throughout the three options submitted to commissioners in late June. The committee agreed to propose the Rock Creek National Conservation Area, Lake Mountain Management Area and The Thumb, to be released to BLM management plans.
In Option 1, Scab Creek is proposed as a national conservation area with aerial management for invasive species and chainsaws to clear trails and downed trees. The Shoal Creek WSA in Sublette County would be divided with 6,058 acres added to the Gros Ventre Wilderness, about 14,696 acres to a special management area and about 3,037 acres released to FS management.
Option 1 votes brought “5s” from Crosson and Smitherman, “3” from Landers, “2s” from Bell, Henn and Smith and thumbs-up “1s” from Lanning and Skinner.
Option 2 proposes “all wilderness” for Scab Creek. Shoal Creek holds the same special management area and bumps new wilderness to 7,398 acres. The Forest Service would be asked to reevaluate roads and trails, including fire trails and two-tracks, for off-road vehicle use.
Option 2 votes brought “5s” from every member except Smitherman, who gave it a “1.”
Option 3 designates all of Scab Creek as wilderness with one provision allowing aerial spraying for invasive weeds – the only difference between Options 2 and 3. The Shoal Creek proposal was the same as Option 2.
Option 3 votes brought “5s” from Bell, Crosson, Henn, Landers and Skinner; Lanning voted “4” and Smith and Smitherman voted “3.”
After Landers reviewed the proposals at the public hearing, Nelson addressed the crowd.
“Remember, this is a fact-gathering meeting,” he said. “… I would just ask that you keep it brief … with your comments, and be kind with your comments.”
A decision on how to proceed will be on a future meeting’s agenda, he added, and opened the hearing to comments.
Siva Sundaresan, of Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Lander office, first thanked the group for its time.
“I am disappointed that they couldn’t come to a consensus on one proposal,” he said, suggesting the county “give your people more time to come to a decision we could all support. Not that the last two years have been wasted.”
Next, Dave Vlcek referred to a letter he sent commissioners.
“I was disappointed (the Sublette WPLI committee) didn’t do the job as assigned.”
Vlcek said he was “extremely disappointed” to not be selected for the committee. He read from his letter.
“First, the makeup of the WPLI committee demonstrated extreme bias. The ‘all-male lineup’ suggested to me that a skewed perspective was established from the outset. … Most came to the table with well-established prejudices, not with consensus as a guiding force.”
Vlcek questioned its “obsession with cheatgrass management (as) an exercise in futility” that a BLM special application could resolve instead of a non-wilderness designation. He called requested chain-saw use for trails tree thinning “wasted efforts.”
“Ultimately, fire will manage beetle-kill as we have so dramatically seen in September 2018,” Vlcek said. “So, the committee micromanaged land use, lacking professional or staff knowledge.”
The Sublette WPLI report was “less than expected and not what was assigned. I could have predicted that from the outset, given the skewed, biased and narrow-minded composition of the committee. Shame on them,” he said.
Next Carmel Kail of Pinedale said she researched aerial spraying over a wilderness and “found the paperwork.” She had hoped the committee would reach a consensus and asked how a statewide legislative package could be crafted without it.
“The principal hang-up is the word ‘wilderness,’” she said of the options, with Sublette County (thus the Sublette County Conservation District) policies calling for no new wilderness. “So the people participating are hamstrung.”
Kail pointed out that of the three Sublette WSAs’ 42,225 acres, in Option 1 only 6,058 total acres would be set aside as wilderness. She asked them to remand the options to the Sublette WPLI committee to reconsider reaching consensus on Option 3.
“Carmel, you can use the word ‘wilderness’ here; it’s okay,” Nelson said.
Elaine Crumpley of Pinedale was also very critical of the committee’s “inability to reach a broadly supported consensus.”
She called it “a painful misrepresentation of Sublette County’s interests … a litany of special-interest groups determined to undermine” land stewardship, wildlife and conservation with “an institutionalized bias against wilderness.”
“Rather it has primarily focused on grazing, human access and economic potential exploitation of the wilderness study areas,” she said.
Ranching and SCCD members unequally represented agriculture “which were anti-wilderness to begin with,” she said, and of 30 applicants not one woman was selected.
She called its inability to reach consensus a “shameful legacy.”
Final comments came from Luke Schultz, a hunter and “rabid conservationist” from Cora, who asked if the WSA proposals could be considered separately instead of in one package.
Nelson then closed the hearing. “We will individually ponder your comments and talk about our individual thoughts.”
Commissioners thanked Sublette WPLI committee members for their months of meetings.
“There are things you can get back and things you can’t get back and time is one of them,” Nelson said. n