U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney is preparing a new bill or a series of bills designed to force a decision on Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) — including High Lakes in Park County — and fight for mechanized use in the areas.
Cheney says she’s fighting frivolous lawsuits by environmental and conservation groups.
“Everybody deserves a seat at the table, but I think we have to get to the point that we recognize that groups shouldn’t be able to use the court system to circumvent the will of the people. And the will of the people has been expressed pretty clearly in terms of multiple use and recreation. A lot of the environmental groups recognize they can’t win [in the court of public opinion] so they abuse our legal system,” Cheney said in a phone interview.
A bill she introduced in December, HR 4697, seeks to ensure mechanized recreation in U.S. Forest Service managed WSA properties in Teton and Park counties. Cheney was criticized by Wyoming Public Lands Initiative advisory committee members and some Teton and Park County commissioners for going around the work of the committees without knowledge of local representatives.
Advisory committees, most of them volunteers, have been working more than a year and a half to find a compromise on WSAs that were designated decades ago and have been mostly ignored since. Cheney said it’s an issue she’s been discussing since the start of her campaign.
“I probably heard about it most from county commissioners as I traveled the state,” said the freshman representative elected in 2016. “It’s been 27 years now since the BLM’s WSAs were reviewed and recommendations were made. I think people recognize and I believe we should really get moving on this decision. Ultimately it’s going to take legislation.”
Cheney hasn’t released language for new bills, but said they may be part of a larger package of legislation dealing with recreation issues.
She said there could be a couple different bills: “One addressing counties not involved in WPLI and counties that want to see movement quickly — that don’t want to wait for the PLI process to be complete,” Cheney said. “We’ve also been working closely with counties that are part of the initiative to get a sense of when they think their committees might have proposals ready to come to Congress.”
Cheney wants to get bills moved prior to Congress’ August recess and the 2018 election season, when things become very political in Washington.
Requests for a working draft of the bill were denied by Cheney’s office, but a draft of at least one of the possible bills was sent to local stakeholders — including Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston and Park County WPLI advisory committee chairman Bucky Hall — in December by Wyoming County Commissioners Association Executive Director Pete Obermueller.
According to a summary of the Wyoming WSA draft bill that was provided to Obermueller, the bill had three sections. The first directs the U.S. Forest Service to collaborate with local stakeholders, such as the WPLI and other county commissioners, to submit to Congress a recommendation on the suitability or non-suitability for designation as wilderness for Forest Service WSAs in Wyoming within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.
After the deadline, any USFS properties which do not receive a recommendation for wilderness will be released and managed as non-wilderness. High Lakes received a recommendation for wilderness by the USFS in 2005. By law, Forest Service WSAs are to receive a recommendation every 15 years.
The second section of this bill language releases every Bureau of Land Management WSA, or portion thereof, that was not recommended for designation as wilderness in a 1991 BLM report. The remaining BLM WSAs that don’t receive a wilderness designation by Jan. 1, 2019, would be released and managed by the BLM according to principles of multiple-use and sustained yield.
The BLM recommended in 1991 that 12 Wyoming WSAs (129,205 acres) become wilderness, nine WSAs (total of 126,174 acres) be partially released and 21 WSAs (210,876 acres) be fully released.
The third section of the draft bill states no new wilderness or wilderness study areas may be designated in Wyoming except by an Act of Congress.
Obermueller told commissioners and WPLI leaders in the December email that “at a minimum, this bill will complicate your efforts.”
“Whether or not it ends your WPLI efforts is largely in the hands of the conservation/environmental groups,” he wrote on Dec. 11. “How they react to the bill will likely dictate the ability to proceed.”
Obermueller added that, “My opinion is that the bill will not become law, and even if it does, it will not become law within a year. If WPLI has not produced actionable items within a year then it is questionable if WPLI will succeed at all, so the bill doesn’t matter. If the bill does pass, then WPLI no longer matter anyway.”
Obermueller — who didn’t return calls seeking comment by press time — wrote that he still believed a collaborative approach was the only path to success, but only if people stay at the table. He warned in the December message that conservation/environmental groups have been pushing to slow down the process.
“This bill will require keeping on pace, and perhaps speeding up if it is going to be successful,” he said.
Shaleas Harrison, BLM Wild Lands Community Organizer for the Wyoming Wilderness Association, thinks it’s disrespectful to put time limits on the advisory committees.
“The PLI has a chance to do something really good. Liz Cheney needs to let it play out,” said Harrison, who grew up in Powell. “She should wait to introduce the bill until the WPLI has made their recommendations. It’s disrespectful to put limits on the WPLI while they’re working so hard. The process takes time and the [advisory] committees are all local. I don’t know how they could get more democratic.”
Harrison also disputes Cheney’s charge of frivolous lawsuits.
The Winter Wildlands Alliance and WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Forest Service in September. They contend that in three national forests, including the Bridger-Teton, officials published maps outlining the areas open to over-snow vehicles without completing a required travel management process. One of the groups’ complaints is that the Forest Service has violated the Wyoming Wilderness Act by allowing more snowmobile use in the Palisades and Shoal Creek WSAs; the act stated that all use was to be held to the use standards in 1984.
In October, the Sierra Club’s Wyoming Chapter, The Wilderness Society, The Winter Wildlands Alliance and the Wyoming Wilderness Association sent a letter to the Shoshone National Forest, expressing similar concerns about increased snowmobile use in the High Lakes WSA.
“The law has sided in our favor in the past,” Harrison said. “Our actions are not frivolous. We should be thankful we have groups willing to enforce regulations. There is a mischaracterization of these lawsuits.”
Harrison said she is not totally against the use of over-snow vehicles in High Lakes, but feels there should be a compromise. She suggested designating more land in the McCullough Peaks area — where Park County’s other WSA lies — as wilderness in exchange for making High Lakes a special management area and allowing snowmobiles to continue using the area. Park County’s WPLI committee has recommended dividing the McCullough Peaks WSA into wilderness and special management areas. It recommends designating about 10,000 of the more than 25,000-acre WSA as wilderness.
But Harrison said the Wyoming Wilderness Association is willing to fight to save all remaining sections of pristine wilderness in the state and doubts Cheney’s bills will pass.
“We need to keep our remaining wilderness wild. WSAs should be managed for their wilderness character. Doesn’t the environment have value without economic benefits?” she said. “[Cheney] is only listening to a couple special interest groups. That’s why [the] bills will never go any further.”
(Editor's note: The headline has been changed to more accurately reflect the content of the story.)