Outrage, disinformation and threats rise up in Wyoming around a BLM land plan

Is there a new Sagebrush Rebellion flaring in the Cowboy State?


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“This is probably the biggest disaster in the United States, affecting more people than the Civil War, Pearl Harbor or 9/11 combined,” Wyoming state Rep. Bill Allemand said. “I urge everyone to call the governor and ask him to stop this state-killing … plan.”

Of what calamity was Allemand speaking? Was it the state’s suicide epidemic (highest rate in the nation)? Or perhaps the ongoing opioid crisis? Nope. The state lawmaker was referring to the new resource management plan proposed by the Bureau of Land Management’s Rock Springs field office, which recommends increased protections on portions of a 3.6-million-acre swath of public lands in southwestern Wyoming, including the sparse and spectacular endorheic basin of the Red Desert. Oh, the horror.

Geologic formation in the Red Desert, Wyoming.
Jeff Vanuga/NPL/Minden Pictures

Allemand’s not alone in his hyperbolic reaction to the 1,300-page, two-volume document, 12 years in the making. The plan has become the focal point of the latest Sagebrush Rebellion flare-up, inspiring a storm of incendiary rhetoric, a flood of disinformation and threats to federal land managers. Sen. John Barrasso said it is “attacking our Wyoming way of life,” while Rep. Harriet Hageman said it would “prohibit and bar all access, management and use of vast swaths of federal land.”

You really have to hand it to these folks: They never let truth or accuracy stand in the way of a catchy sound bite.

But the critics are correct about one thing: The BLM’s “preferred alternative” — which is not necessarily going to be the final decision — would increase restrictions on energy development. And conservationists are delighted, especially because, considered alongside other BLM land-management plans in western Colorado and southeastern Utah, it might represent a shift of the agency’s ethos, from the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining” to one not so willing to bow to the extractive industries.

Here’s some of what the preferred alternative would do:

  • Designate 1.6 million acres as ACECs, or areas of critical environmental concern, which are given extra layers of protection that effectively ban new oil and gas leasing, though they rarely have much effect on livestock grazing.

  • Close 2.19 million acres to new oil and gas drilling; put 1.99 million acres off-limits to new hardrock mining claims (including for lithium and uranium); and close 2.48 million acres to wind and solar.

  • Ban off-highway vehicles on 225,537 acres, while preserving designated OHV routes on another 3.37 million acres.

  • Increase protections for the “respected places” of the eight tribal nations that have traditional homelands in the area. The plan would also acknowledge tribal sovereignty by ensuring that government-to-government consultation takes place in the future.

All this makes for some major changes affecting a lot of acreage, with potentially major impacts — albeit maybe not quite on the scale of Pearl Harbor. And it’s clearly scaring some and outraging others, who claim that the plan amounts to an abandonment of the BLM’s multiple use mandate. They are so upset they can’t seem to see everything the plan would continue to allow, including:

  • Leaving 3.58 million acres, or 99.8% of the planning area, available for livestock grazing.

  • It would keep 1.4 million acres open to oil and gas leasing and development and would not affect hundreds of existing oil and gas wells. Meanwhile the plan would leave 223,109 acres open to coal leasing; 1.8 million acres open to oil shale (oil shale!?!); 1.8 million acres open to trona mining; and nearly 1.9 million acres available for hardrock mining claims.

  • And solar and wind would still be allowed on about 1 million acres, with some 1.4 million acres open to geothermal development.

In other words, the BLM is basically trying to balance conservation and development — i.e., manage for multiple uses — just as Congress ordered it to do in 1976 with the Federal Land Policy Management Act. The BLM has formulated similar compromises in western Colorado, where it’s looking to put 1.6 million acres off-limits to new oil and gas leasing, and southeastern Utah, with a balanced motorized recreation plan in the canyon country around Moab.

While these proposals may be compromises, they still mark an abrupt shift from the agency’s traditional industry-friendly approach, especially in Wyoming. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s politics are veering even more radically to the right, in lockstep with the national Republican Party. This makes for an extremely volatile combination.

It may seem hard to believe now, but not so long ago Wyoming was, if not exactly moderate, then politically pragmatic — a characteristic that has been lost in a toxic ideological fog. During the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late ’70s, for example, many Western politicians pushed back on the Carter administration’s pledge to end the extractive industries’ “rape, ruin, and run” campaign on public lands. But in Wyoming, the feds actively promoted those three Rs, sacrificing the state’s public lands to the quixotic quest for energy independence, lending a different meaning to “land grab” and “federal overreach.” In response, then-Gov. Ed Herschler not only sat out the Sagebrush Rebellion, for the most part, but joined ranchers and environmentalists to fight a coal slurry pipeline in his state. He also raised taxes on fossil fuel companies.

Pronghorn antelope grazing near petroleum drill in the Red Desert, Wyoming.
Shattil and Rozinski/NPL/Minden Pictures

That sort of pragmatism resurfaced in some unexpected places. In the early 1980s, for example, when the Reagan administration sought to open wilderness areas to oil and gas drilling, the author of the Wyoming Wilderness Act — none other than Rep. Dick Cheney — said: “There is a general feeling in my state that much as we would like the economic benefits from the energy resources … we’d like even more to save a few acres and declare them off-limits.”

It might behoove Wyoming’s current lawmakers to heed the words of their predecessors or, even better, to listen to a contemporary’s take on the resource management plan: The Red Desert was included in the 44-million-acre Treaty of 1863 with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, and special places in the Northern Red Desert have been important to many Tribes for millennia,” said Jason Baldes, the vice president of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council and an Eastern Shoshone Tribal member, in a written statement. This plan keeps our traditional homelands safe from the exploitation we see taking place in other areas, and my hope is these lands can remain the same as they have for thousands of years.”

You can comment on the plan here until Jan. 17, 2024.


Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Note: This story was updated to correct some numbers where a decimal point was misplaced.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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