Wilderness film reviews Palisades debate, seeks resolution


A wilderness advocacy group seeks to resolve the fate of a quarter million acres of untrammeled National Forest land on the Wyoming-Idaho border, using a film to restart a stalled conversation.

The Wyoming Wilderness Association premiered “The Palisades Project,” a 20-minute film that explores the controversy over the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, on Friday. 

Three years in the making, the film examines conflicts among recreationists regarding whether mechanized and motorized play should be allowed across the rugged, forested mountains in the Snake River Range southwest of Jackson. The 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act designated the Wyoming portion of the range — a range also known as the Palisades — as a wilderness study area to be preserved for potential designation as wilderness.

Protection under the Wilderness Act of 1964 would keep the region in its natural state and prohibit motorized and mechanized uses. Congress enacted the statute “to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas…”

Several Wyoming interest groups criticized the “study-area” status of the Palisades and other federal lands in Wyoming as an unfinished project, leading to a yearslong effort by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association to resolve the limbo-like existence. The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative used local stakeholder groups to propose guidelines to Congress for the federal property.

Plagued by controversy, disagreement over rules and processes, and a legislative proposal by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney that threatened to supercede the groups’ efforts, WPLI foundered, including in conservation-oriented Teton County where compromise agreements died. In that community, a motorized/mechanized contingent led by Advocates for Multiple use of Public Lands protested wilderness designation.

Traditional threats to wilderness lands came from logging, oil and gas and mining, said Peggie dePasquale, associate director of the WWA and producer of the film. But that’s no longer the case.

“It’s an individual’s desire to go out and have a good time,” she said of the modern conflict. “Recreation, for a long time, was an ally of conservation.”

Jesse Combs, president of Advocates for Multiple use of Public Lands, calls wilderness designation “a death sentence” for mountain biking, snowmobiling and dirt biking in a trailer for the WWA film.

In his group’s own film, “Palisades: The People’s Perspective” he notes that all but 18% of the land in Teton County, most of it federal, is ineligible for motorized use. The county is home to two national parks — Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and the Teton Wilderness, one of the country’s first wilderness areas.

Snowmobilers in AMPL’s film say that they essentially see no other users when riding in the Palisades. The group calls wilderness designation a solution without a problem. 

Despite entrenched and active opposition to a Palisades wilderness proposal from Teton County, “there’s a lot of common ground,” Combs says in the AMPL film.

“We’re at this crossroads where we have to reevaluate our impact on the land,” dePasquale said. “And it’s not an easy conversation to have.”

Conservationists define the Greater Palisades area as the quarter-million-acre forested Snake River Range straddling the Idaho-Wyoming border. It includes striking mountains such as Observation Peak and Ferry Peak.

World famous Edelweiss Bowl, a backcountry ski mecca, stands in the study area just south of Teton Pass. The Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests administer the area which covers four counties — Bonneville and Teton in Idaho and Lincoln and Teton in Wyoming.

The 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act preserved only the Wyoming half to “maintain its presently existing Wilderness character.”

Among the flaws in previous conversations regarding the fate of the Palisades is the effective exclusion of Native American voices, dePasquale said. The land in question belonged to the Eastern Shoshone tribe, among others, according to an 1863 treaty, she said.

“It was taken away without any rhyme or reason,” dePasquale said. The Palisades Project acknowledges the area as “ancestral, unceded territory of the Eastern Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock, Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, Apsáalooke (Crow), and Oceti Sakowin (Lakota) people.”

The Palisades Project seeks to include tribes “at the absolute first step,” dePasquale said.

Lincoln County did not participate in any wilderness study discussions during the WPLI process. Lincoln commissioners favor state ownership of federal lands and seek multiple use in the Palisades. There is no wilderness study designation on the Idaho side of the range.

A panel discussion will follow the screening, dePascale said, featuring Arapaho and Shoshone Wyoming Public Media reporter Taylar Stagner, Bridger-Teton Wilderness and Recreation manager Linda Merigliano, hunter and naturalist Josh Metten, the former executive director of Mountain Bike the Tetons Tony Ferlisi and the Wyoming director of The Wilderness Society Dan Smitherman.

“I am very inspired by the current administration and their willingness to protect our public lands,” dePascale said. Yet, “I don’t think it has gotten any easier on a local level.”

Local support, plus recognition by all Americans of what’s at stake on their property, could advance the wilderness cause, she said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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