Why I say "no" to a regional wilderness bill


Wyoming folks are cantankerous souls, with independent notions about where they can go and what they ought to be able to do when they get there.  We love wild country, but a lot of us also love our four-wheelers, snowmobiles and four-wheel drive pickups. We don't have anything against drilling, logging or grazing on the public lands, as long as it's done right and doesn't screw up our hunting and fishing. We take a very Western "live and let live" philosophy to the management of our public lands, just as long as the activities of the few do not mess it up for the rest.

The trouble comes when someone who's not from around here challenges that live-and-let-live belief and misunderstands the nuances of how we think. Let me cite as an example the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act currently being considered in the U.S House of Representatives. This legislation is sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York City. Rep. Maloney represents the 14th District in New York, which takes in the east side of Manhattan, Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens, and Roosevelt Island.

Rep. Maloney seems passionate about wilderness in the West. She says that the Rockies are America's living national treasure, and we must do everything possible to save the pristine area for our children. She says that her bill is ecosystem-driven legislation that will preserve the Rockies by designating over 24 million acres of wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, wildland recovery areas and corridors that link biologically similar areas on public lands in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.

Those sound like pretty good things, in general. But the details are a little different. If you were to visit the Bridger-Teton National Forest along the Wind River front -- places like Scab Creek or Fremont Lake or Half Moon Lake -- you would be in a wilderness area if Maloney's bill passed. The Wyoming Range, a place that so many of us fought so hard for in the last few years, would be mostly wilderness. The Salt River Range, the Hoback, the Gros Ventre, Green River Lakes and other areas would be included as well. The bottom line is about 5 million acres of new wilderness in Wyoming.

Personally, I'm a big fan of wilderness. I hunt and fish in a wilderness area every year. I hike and ride horses (and sometimes get bucked off mules) in wilderness areas in Wyoming every year. My children and grandchildren do the same. The organization I work for supports wilderness designation for some places. Our members value the solitude and the freedom and the beauty of Wyoming's wilderness areas. Many of us have worked hard to establish those areas and taken good care of them for many years. But neither I nor my organization supports the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

Why? We think it's a bad bill. It fails to consider the wants and needs of the people who live, work and play in the areas it affects. And it's a bad bill because it paints western Wyoming's national forests with a broad brush, saying essentially that if it's inside the forest boundary it should be wilderness. No reasonable person in Wyoming would consider Fremont Lake a wilderness area. No reasonable person in Wyoming would create a wilderness area in the Salt River Range that extended all the way to the forest boundary east of Afton. No reasonable person in Wyoming would take vast areas of multiple-use lands and put them into wilderness management with so little regard for the people most affected by that decision.

But perhaps more important, no reasonable person in Wyoming would take thousands of Wyoming families off the lands where they hunt, fish, camp, ride and hike. That simply isn't right. What's more, it isn't smart. At a time when we need more supporters for the future of wildlife and wild lands, it turns these families into opponents of the idea. If there was ever a time when wilderness buffs like me and folks who just want to be able to park their trailer and ride their four-wheelers need to be on the same side, it's now.

It's possible that we need more wilderness areas in some places in Wyoming. If so, we're capable of deciding where they should be. We don't need Rep. Maloney to tell us.

Walt Gasson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.