CASPER, Wyo. - Fifteen years ago, a rallying cry - public access to public land - unified Wyoming hunters.
The villains were newly arrived corporate ranchers and their managers, who blocked hunter access across their lands to public land. Other suspects were federal-land managers thought to possess a less-than-zealous determination to distribute accurate maps or post signs to help hunters know whose land they were on.
The public-access-to-public-lands banner still waves proudly across Wyoming, but those marching under it are more diverse. A Casper, Wyo., forum organized earlier this year to highlight the access issue drew 600 angry outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen. That's about as large a crowd as you can assemble in a state where some counties have barely that many residents.
But it turned out they weren't all angry about the same thing. Sure, all were irked that neither the state Bureau of Land Management director nor his deputy had shown up. And they were uniformly peeved that none of the state land-board members - that's the governor and the four other elected officials, who manage 3.5 million acres of state-trust lands as a part of their duties - accepted an invitation to attend the meeting.
The crowd applauded when speakers invoked the 2002 elections as a day of reckoning for state officials who ignore public-access isues.
The revival atmosphere at the meeting was enhanced by the fact that the organizers, John Jolley of the Grassroots Advocate (HCN, 5/11/98: A fiery Wyoming newspaper pursues the state's fat cats), Wyoming Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups, allowed the participants to vent their feelings before, rather than after, the presentations.
Everyone had a story to tell. The recurrent one was about how access to public land had been cut off because a new landowner no longer allowed members of the public to cross his land, or how a land swap in the works promised to deny access.
But a new and vocal minority weighed in with a different gripe - decreasing access to federal public lands for motorized recreation. Their anger was directed at Forest Service and Clinton administration efforts to increase restrictions on snowmobiles, all-terrain and four-wheel drive vehicles and motorcycles.
These motorized recreationists decried Forest Service travel plans that call for closing off and ripping up miles of "pioneered" roads - tracks in sorry repair which nonetheless are passable for four-wheel drive and all-terrain vehicles. They also berated the Clinton administration's proposal to keep the approximately 3.2 million roadless national forest acres in Wyoming roadless.
Casper resident Charles Chaney spoke out against the so-called "travel plans" instituted by national forest officials, in which they announce their plans to rip up roads and tracks. Chaney went after the feds in a letter to the Casper Star-Tribune a few days after the meeting. The "faulty claims and incomplete evidence" supplied to the Forest Service by "radicals who infest the legitimate environmental groups have bamboozled the agency into closing roads to motorized vehicles," Chaney said.
There was no public discussion at the Casper meeting of a possible built-in rift within the new organization that the group formed that day - the Wyoming Public Lands Access Association. By-laws, written in anticipation of a groundswell for the group, were already multi-copied; eager volunteers stepped forward, including some who clearly understood "public access to public land" to mean the right to ride any sort of vehicle across any piece of federal land.
I left the meeting wondering whether a group with such divergent interpretations of public access would survive. But now, three months later, board members of the newly formed Wyoming group say that motorized access to federal lands has dropped off their agenda.
"I don't agree that it's okay for anybody to go blasting up fragile ecosystems," said John Pennington, president of the new public-lands access group. "There are many areas that need to be carefully studied and where certain kinds of access need to be limited."
Pennington said his organization has about 100 members and continues to grow. In his view, which he said is probably shared by 90 percent of his members, the new sportsmen's organization should concern itself with gaining access to trailheads.
The secretary of the group, Pat Begeley, said he's worried about yet another facet of public land access. He cited a recent paper by Terry Anderson, an environmental-policy advisor for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Anderson is director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. His paper, released in January, argues forcefully for auctioning off public lands in the next 20 to 40 years.
"Clinton's doing the right thing, but if this guy has his way, the Republican agenda would be to remove public lands and sell them to private entities," Begeley warned. "We're talking about Arco and British Petroleum, and environmental groups would have to bid against them."
Begeley also noted that Wyoming's senior senator, Republican Craig Thomas, is a leading proponent of privatizing federal lands or transferring them to the states.
Anderson, contacted by phone, confirmed that he is part of a panel that advises Bush on environmental policy. He admitted that his proposal is "not politically palatable," and that he wouldn't suggest that Bush put it in his platform. Nonetheless, he said, "environmentalists are trying to paint (Bush) into a 'privatization' corner."
Keeping "public lands in public hands" has been a perennial campaign slogan for Democrats in Wyoming. Though the issue never attracts enough voters in the overwhelmingly Republican state to make any difference, it doesn't go away, either.
Katharine Collins lives and writes in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Katharine Collins