Cheney bill on local wilderness study area surprises commissioners

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While some see the legislation as unwelcome interference, others welcome move to expedite process

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., has introduced a bill that seeks to protect the rights of mechanized recreation in a few Wilderness Study Areas — including one in Park County. The proposal has drawn some criticism, in part because Cheney did not consult or notify local leaders before introducing the bill, which would impact the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area inside the Shoshone National Forest.

A committee appointed by Park County commissioners is currently discussing the future of the High Lakes area as part of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative. It’s a statewide effort being led by county commissioners that’s aimed at coming up with a permanent plan for the wilderness study areas within Wyoming, lands that have stuck in limbo as kind of psuedo-wilderness “study areas” for decades.

“It would seem appropriate that she would have contacted Pete [Obermueller, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association] or somebody in the individual counties, saying, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking about doing,’” Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf said of Cheney’s bill. Grosskopf described himself as “disappointed” that the representative did not involve commissioners.

“She kind of put the cart before the horse, I think,” said Commissioner Tim French, adding that it would probably be best if Cheney listened to local residents first. French hopes the state’s lone representative will give area residents a chance to give feedback.

“It would probably be a smart thing to come out to Park County ... and explain where she’s coming from versus broadsiding us like that,” French said.

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Cheney said H.R. 4697 — as well as an additional bill she’s circulating among select county commissioners — are an attempt to “right the ship that the court system shouldn’t be used to limit outdoor recreation.”

HR 4697 is eliciting a mixed bag of emotions — typical in public lands debate — but hints at the building importance of an issue that has been largely ignored for the past three decades.

The bill seeks to protect the rights of mechanized recreation in three Wilderness Study Areas (WSA): High Lakes in Park County and the Palisades and Shoal Creek areas in Teton County. It says that “all recreational uses occurring within such Wilderness Study Areas on the date before [they became study areas in 1984], including horseback riding, snowmobiling, dirt bike riding, mountain biking, and helicopter skiing, shall be permitted.” All three sites in Cheney’s bill are managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The High Lakes Wilderness Study Area, a roughly 26,000 acre parcel in the Beartooth Range near the Montana border, lies in the Shoshone.

Cheney’s bill has drawn the most attention for its language aimed at protecting and expanding heli-skiing in the Pallisades area in the Teton Range. The bill also seeks to protect rights of snowmobile enthusiasts in the WSAs.

“[H.R. 4697] focuses on three Forest Service WSAs targeted by groups misinterpreting congressional intent. It clarifies language so existing outdoor activities can continue,” said Cheney.

The bill was welcome news for mechanized recreation groups, including High Lakes snowmobilers. It was also considered an unwelcome attempt to undermine work by the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI) by some on the advisory committee — and was a surprise to all involved.

The Park County advisory committee is a grassroots collection of volunteer representatives picked by commissioners as part of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association’s attempt to define WSAs locally. It’s been working for the past 18 months on the High Lakes and McCullough Peaks WSAs in Park County.

At the start of the committee’s Wednesday meeting, committee chairman Bucky Hall opened a conversation about Cheney’s efforts. Hall attempted to reach out to Cheney’s office for clarification before the meeting, but was left hanging without communication from the at-large representative. The following day he received an email from Holly Heussner, a Cheney legislative assistant.

“Representative Cheney is supportive of the locally-led WPLI and H.R. 4697 will not undermine the ongoing process,” Heussner’s email read.

Hall was disappointed in the message’s late arrival, making it impossible to allay frustration created by the lack of communication. However, “I don’t think her bill will derail or override our committee’s work,” Hall said, though he’s concerned she’s attempting to work both sides with her public comments.

Commissioner Grosskopf, who attended the committee’s meeting at the Park County Library, said seeing High Lakes WSA included in Cheney’s bill was a shock. However, he’s been impressed with the congresswoman’s attention to the issue and hopes to be able to work with her saying, “I’m the optimist.”

“I’m hoping this will push what we’re working toward through quicker,” Grosskopf said. “It might move things faster than we ever imagined.”

Several advisory committee members and members of the public attending the meeting consider the bill to be an end-around their efforts. Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns for the Wilderness Society, called Cheney’s efforts “an affront to [the WPLI] process.”

“You all have spent the last year and a half working on management solutions for the exact area the congresswoman came in on without consulting any of us that I’m aware of — taking a top-down, D.C. approach to the management,” Spitler said.

Committee member John Gallagher, who has years of experience negotiating land use, including a bike park at Cody’s Beck Lake, doubted the bill would advance and wasn’t surprised by the lack of communication. But he also thought Cheney’s efforts show the importance of expediting the work of the committee.

“It shows there’s impatience with the status of WPAs,” Gallagher said prior to the meeting.

Efforts to obtain the draft of the next bill that Cheney may introduce about Wyoming’s wilderness study areas were unsuccessful. Cheney said the bill is still in the development stage and may not affect WPLI efforts.

“I might only draft the bill to affect counties without public land initiatives,” Cheney said.

— CJ Baker contributed reporting.

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