Can Wyoming learn from Utah’s public-land mistakes?

If the initiative is successful, it could be a model for other states.


Where Wyoming’s imposing Teton Range ends, the more modest Snake River Range begins. Less visited than its northern neighbor, the remote area is a vital piece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, providing habitat for elk, deer, moose and bears. Though not protected by a national park, as the Tetons are, 136,000 rugged acres of the Snake River Range — known as the Palisades — have lingered in the contentious limbo of a “wilderness study area” for more than 30 years. In winter, the Palisades’ spruce- and fir-dotted hills and sprawling sagebrush steppe attract snowmobilers and backcountry skiers; in summer, visitors bike, hike and seek out dazzling wildflower displays.

A major source of friction in the public land wars, over 500 wilderness study areas in the West span at least 15 million acres. Federal land agencies manage them to preserve their wilderness characteristics until Congress decides whether to designate them as official wilderness, meaning that generally mining and logging are prohibited or restricted and mechanized recreation is not allowed. (In the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, however, prior uses have been grandfathered in.) This uncertain status irks both those who want permanent protection and those who would rather open the lands to more recreation and mineral development.

In an effort to finally resolve that uncertainty, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association recently introduced the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, inviting the state’s 23 counties to participate. The goal is to pass federal legislation based on measured, locally driven decisions for Wyoming’s 45 wilderness study areas. 

Though it’s still early in the process, hopes are high that Wyoming’s approach could provide a useful blueprint. Other states are already watching: In Montana, where a recent House resolution called upon Congress to release seven wilderness study areas to multiple use, some pointed to Wyoming’s bottom-up plan as a more reasonable alternative. Critics of Montana’s resolution complained that it would cut the public out, and suggested a more collaborative process.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service identified more than 800 wilderness study areas on Western lands. This was supposed to be temporary: Once the responsible agency studied an area’s wilderness potential, Congress would either designate it or release the land to other uses. That inventory was completed in the early ’90s, but widespread opposition to wilderness created roadblocks. While areas have been resolved piecemeal since that time, no broader process has been developed.

In Wyoming, advisory committees in the eight participating counties will meet regularly through the end of the year to develop recommendations for the future of wilderness study areas and other public lands with wilderness potential in their county. Because Wyoming is exempt from the Antiquities Act, stakeholders can deliberate without what some see as the threat of monument designation.

Once approved by the county commission, each committee’s recommendations will be included in a statewide bill to be introduced by Wyoming’s congressional delegation. Republican Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and then-Rep. Cynthia Lummis expressed their support for the initiative in a 2015 letter to Wyoming’s Boards of County Commissioners, describing it as “a reasonable approach for legislative success.”

Palisades Wilderness Study Area is split between two Wyoming counties that have different ideas about how the land should be used and managed.
Courtesy EcoFlight

Teton County’s 21 advisory committee members, who range from wilderness advocates to motorized recreationists, began meeting last fall. The county is home to Grand Teton National Park, part of Yellowstone and three wilderness areas; it also holds portions of the Palisades and Shoal Creek wilderness study areas. The committee largely agrees on the basics, such as keeping public lands public and protecting wilderness study areas from development. “In general, people want this landscape to look and feel the same in the future as it does now,” says committee member Pat Kearney, Wyoming conservation coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

They disagree, however, on the details. In the Palisades, the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act allowed snowmobiling and heli-skiing to continue to the extent that they occurred before wilderness study area designation. But as Teton County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim points out, considerable “creep” has occurred over the years, with use extending beyond the historic precedent. Releasing the Palisades to multiple use would allow that use to continue, which the motorized contingent wants. Wilderness advocates, however, would like to see motorized use reined in — and congressionally designated wilderness status would achieve that goal.

But to advocate only for wilderness would go against the collaborative spirit of the initiative, says Kearney. If the committee reaches a solution, it will likely lie somewhere in the middle. Other public lands with wilderness potential could serve as bargaining chips, increasing the likelihood that each group will get at least a piece of what they want.

Beyond in-county user-group conflicts lies another wrinkle: conflicts between counties. The Palisades lies partly in Teton County and partly in Lincoln County. While Teton County relies upon public lands for its recreation-heavy economy, Lincoln County remains reliant upon mining and ranching. Lincoln declined to participate in the initiative, recommending, in a letter to Wyoming’s congressional delegation, the full release of the Palisades for multiple use. Any legislation resulting from the initiative will affect only the participating counties, so Teton’s recommendations will have no bearing on Lincoln’s portion of the Palisades. Teton shares its other wilderness study area, Shoal Creek, with Sublette County, which is participating.

The advisory committees face a complex task: Not only must a wide range of stakeholders come to consensus, but if they want to see a successful bill, they’ll have to build their recommendations to withstand scrutiny at the national level. Utah’s Public Lands Initiative, which attempted to end the controversy surrounding the state’s potential and current wilderness through a negotiated compromise, failed because, in its later stages, what was meant to be a bottom-up approach “became kind of top-down,” says Peter Aengst, Northern Rockies regional director for The Wilderness Society. The state’s congressional delegation added provisions, such as energy development zones, that “did not honor the diverse interests at the county level” that went into the initiative, he explains. 

Supporters hope Wyoming has learned from Utah’s mistakes, but top-down changes could still become an issue: What the counties decide is in their best interest won’t necessarily satisfy the congressional delegation. For an initiative like this to be successful, Aengst says, the delegation must be “absolutely committed to honoring the locally crafted, bottom-up agreements” that the counties reach. He hopes the Wyoming delegation will ensure that the resulting bill maintains broad support. Toward that end, the Wyoming County Commissioners’ Association will advocate for whatever recommendations emerge from the county-level negotiations, says Gregory Cowan, the organization’s natural resource staff attorney, assuming the counties proceed in good faith.

Regardless of the outcome, Wyoming’s initiative is helping to build relationships among historically opposed groups. It gives stakeholders “an opportunity to sit at the table, spend time together, get to know one another, and try to find a solution that they can all live with,” says Steve Smutko of the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute, which is helping the advisory committees work more effectively in Teton and Sublette counties. “That in itself is good for Wyoming.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News. 

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