Leaders in southwest Wyoming appear willing to overlook the troubled history of a private prison company attempting to build an immigration detention facility outside Evanston in order to bring what they say the community needs most — jobs and revenue.
The company, Utah-based Management & Training Corporation, approached Uinta County and Evanston officials earlier this year with a proposal to construct the facility, company spokesman Issa Arnita said in an email. If built, the center would house approximately 600 detainees for the Salt Lake City office of the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which serves Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.
Local officials see the proposal as an opportunity to bring jobs to the 20,000-person county and tax money into its coffers. Both the Uinta County Commissioners and the Evanston City Council noted those needs when they passed resolutions in support of MTC’s detention facility over the summer.
“We’ve been in such a depressed economy for so many years,” Evanston Mayor Kent Williams said. “We’ve cried for economic diversity, and in my mind this is diversity.”
The vast majority of the community seems supportive of bringing the detention facility to the area, Williams and County Commissioner Wendell Fraughton said. But immigration advocates and some local residents have concerns about the company’s history and its potential impact.
In fact, MTC has already run into problems in Wyoming. The company has operated a Job Corps center — a free career training program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor — in Riverton since 2015. The company is currently fighting a lawsuit in federal court alleging that its employees there discriminated against Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members hired to work for the program.
In Texas, an MTC-operated immigration detention facility faced allegations of understaffing, tainted food and sexual abuse of detainees by guards. At least two of the guards there were convicted of crimes committed inside the facility. At another detention center in New Mexico, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that the MTC facility did not meet multiple federal standards, including failing to properly clean moldy bathrooms and misuse of solitary confinement.
“The for-profit private prison system, including privately operated immigrant detention facilities, have been marked by substandard and inhumane conditions, broken financial promises to local rural communities, and a lack of transparency and accountability when problems have arisen,” Sabrina King, Policy Director for the ACLU of Wyoming, wrote in a letter to the editor. “One of the worst offenders has been MTC, the third-largest private prison company in America and one with a disturbing history of corruption and a disturbing record of abuse and neglect at its facilities.”
Both the mayor and the county commissioner said they were aware of the problems reported in Texas but had not heard of the inspection in New Mexico. Nonetheless, both officials said the company’s history did not alter their support for the project.
“Undoubtedly with these kinds of things there will be issues that arise that will have to be dealt with,” Williams said. “But I’m not going to judge them for that and trust that they will respond appropriately. Does that shine negatively on MTC in my mind? No it doesn’t.”
Williams said he was not aware of the Wyoming lawsuit and did not want to comment on it without further information.
The proposed facility is an answer to a federal request for a detention facility near Salt Lake City in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order expanding the country’s capacity to detain immigrants. The space will be necessary as immigration enforcement continues to arrest an increasing number of undocumented immigrants, another priority of the president. Between Jan. 22 and April 29, deportation officers arrested 41,318 people — 37 percent more than during the same period in 2016, according to ICE.
Those held in one of the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s more than 100 detention facilities — like the proposed Uinta County center — are held in civil, not criminal, custody while awaiting proceedings in federal immigration court. The custody is not supposed to be punitive and detainees are not charged with a crime, though they are not allowed to leave the facilities, according to Department of Homeland Security. Some of the ICE detainees have been convicted of a crime, served their sentence and are now awaiting deportation proceedings. Others have no criminal record.
MTC operates three other ICE detention facilities: the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, California; Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico; and IAH Detention Center in Livingston, Texas.
Progress on the Uinta detention center is stalled until ICE decides whether the rural Wyoming county is suitable for the project. If federal immigration officials approve the site on unincorporated county land, the county will then decide whether to proceed in negotiations with the company.
“When I first heard about it, I was pretty skeptical,” Fraughton, the county commissioner, said. “But after meeting the MTC people and doing some research I think it will be a good boost for the county.”
In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded MTC a $41 million contract to operate the Wind River Job Corps Center for five years. The program offers young people free training in manufacturing, welding, construction and other fields as well as career guidance and life skills.
Both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes helped the company earn the contract, according to the December 2016 suit and the company’s response to it. According to the lawsuit, filed by former employee Garrett Collins, MTC promised that Collins would have a leadership role at the program in exchange for his help gaining the tribe’s support for the company. Collins is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and previously served as the tribe’s chairman and liaison to the governor’s office.
After the company won the federal contract, it hired Collins as a business community liaison and work-based learning director. However, Collins soon noticed that MTC’s program director, Julie Gassner, treated him differently than the white employees. He further alleges he was “subjected to unfair treatment including ridicule and harassment due to his Native American ancestry,” according to the suit. Three other Native American employees also brought complaints about a hostile work environment to the program leadership, the suit states. Two of those employees left their jobs due to that environment.
Collins states that he used his tribal connections to make sure there was a “Native American presence” at the center’s grand opening, at the request of national Job Corps leadership. However, Collins alleges that Gassner had already made plans to fire him and the other sole Native American employee after the ceremony was complete. Gassner allegedly told another employee that she needed to keep the two men around until after the ceremony because they needed tribal participation.
Ten days after the ceremony, Gassner terminated Collins’ employment without explanation and hired a white woman to replace him, the suit states.
The suit alleges that the company lied to Collins in order to use his tribal connections to secure support before wrongfully terminating him when he was no longer needed.
In their response to the suit, MTC’s attorneys admit that Collins helped the company establish relationships with tribal leadership but deny that Collins was ever promised employment with the program.
The company denies all allegations of harassment or discrimination and states that it was never made aware of complaints of a hostile work environment. It also denies that Gassner planned to fire Collins before the ceremony and that he was given no cause for his termination.
MTC declined to provide further comment on the allegations beyond its filed response.
The lawsuit was transferred to the U.S. District Court of Wyoming in February, where the proceedings continue.
Meanwhile, MTC is facing criticism elsewhere in the country for its management of a New Mexico immigration detention center.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General began a review of five ICE detention facilities in response to concerns about living conditions from immigrant rights groups and complaints through the office’s hotline. The office found that four of the five surveyed facilities — including MTC’s Otero County Processing Center — were not meeting federal requirements and providing safe living conditions for detainees.
“Overall we identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment,” the Office of the Inspector General wrote of the four facilities in its Dec. 11 report.
At each of the facilities, staff with the inspector general’s office made unannounced visits and examined the centers’ medical units, food areas, processing areas and housing units. The inspectors also evaluated complaint procedures, interviewed staff and detainees, and reviewed documentation.
At MTC’s Otero facility, which is owned by the county but operated by the company, inspectors found that staff were violating federal standards regarding the use of solitary confinement and other forms of punishment. Some detainees were placed in solitary confinement without an explanation and were not given a chance to appeal that punishment. Documentation related to the punishment was also found to be nonexistent or incomplete.
Inspectors also found mold and peeling paint in detainee restrooms and showers. In the kitchen, inspectors found spoiled food and moldy produce as well as food past its expiration date.
Ultimately, the report recommends that ICE mitigate and solve some of the issues “through increased engagement and interaction with the facilities and their operations.”
MTC disputes the inspectors’ finding. The company follows all national standards regarding solitary segregation and keeps its bathrooms clean (and even recently repainted all the showers), Arnita, the spokesman, said.
The Otero facility, which opened in 2008, was also the focus of a 2011 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. The report, based on interviews with detainees and a review of documentation, states that many people held in the facility reported a lack of food, long waits for medical attention, difficulty obtaining necessary medications, a lack of respect from the guards, and a fear of retaliation if they submitted a formal complaint about conditions. Some reported that the guards used racial or ethnic epithets and, in a few cases, physically abused the detainees.
The issues at the Otero facility are common in other privately-operated immigration detention centers across the country, the ACLU contends in the report.
“For many, the Otero County Processing Center represents a national trend in immigration detention that relies on facilities built in remote locations, lacking legal and community resources for informal oversight, and managed by private, for-profit corporations,” the report states.
The company denies the ACLU report’s findings as well. Contrary to the report, Arnita said the company provides nutritious meals, provides timely medical and dental care, and trains its staff to respect detainees.
“These allegations are without merit,” Arnita wrote.
Across the country, another rural county facing economic struggles is deciding whether to let MTC reopen an immigration detention there.
Willacy County in Texas contracted with MTC in 2006 to run the Willacy County Processing Center as an ICE detention center. The agreement stipulated that the county would pay the company a set amount of money determined by the number of inmates held.
Tens of thousands of immigrants cycled through the facility over the next five years. Multiple human rights and legal groups visited the center and reported a number of troubling conditions. In 2007, immigration officials found “tainted” food at the facility. A delegation from the American Bar Association visited the center in August 2007 and found the facility was understaffed, the windowless tents used to house the detainees leaked and inmates experienced long waits for access to the legal library. Detainees told the delegation that some of them had been issued used towels and underwear that had not been washed.
Similarly, a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited the center in July 2009 and found the facility understaffed, especially in the medical and mental health services. The medical director told the delegation that 12 of the center’s 29 medical posts were vacant and that she was the only physician on staff to care for more than 1,300 detainees, according to the group’s report. Detainees also told the delegation that they were underfed and sometimes fed moldy foods. A former nurse told the group that prisoners were frequently given antacids to calm hunger pains while she worked there.
An October 2011 Frontline documentary included interviews with former Willacy County staff and detainees who said they experienced or witnessed guards sexually and physically assaulting detainees. According to the documentary, the reporters found at least a dozen reports of sexual abuse by guards.
In 2009, a security guard at the facility was found guilty of selling cocaine to detainees and sentenced to five years of supervised probation, court documents show. A security guard was charged in 2011 with sexually abusing a female detainee at the processing center in 2008. He pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 14 months in prison, court documents show.
In 2011, ICE ended its contract with MTC. County officials were disappointed in the amount of income the detention center brought in, according to local news reports at the time.
MTC then contracted with the Bureau of Prisons to host federal prisoners, renaming the facility the Willacy County Correctional Center. Concerns about the conditions at the prison persisted, though MTC continued to deny the allegations.
In 2015, the prisoners rioted in protest of the conditions. The riots damaged the county-owned prison and the Bureau of Prisons canceled its contract and closed the buildings, rendering all of its staff unemployed. In December 2016, Willacy County sued MTC alleging that the company mismanaged the facility and cost the county millions of dollars.
“MTC had the duty to run and operate the Prison, but MTC breached its duties and mismanaged the operation, causing the County tens of millions in damages,” the lawsuit states.
The county also claimed that the company misrepresented its intentions while negotiating a later version of the contract. The county stated in the suit that MTC would create an operating plan that would meet all requirements and would keep the facility in good repair.
In its response to the suit, MTC denied the claims or said it did not have sufficient information to respond.
“The representations were false and MTC knew it,” the suit states. “MTC had no interest in developing or intent to develop an Operating Plan or keeping the Prison in good repair, but instead was only interested in the money flowing from the County from an overcrowded Prison.”
The county agreed to dismiss the suit in March, court documents show. While the filings don’t state why the county dismissed the suit, the county is now working “hand in hand” with MTC to reopen the facility, which has since been repaired, Arnita said. County officials interviewed by reporters from local and national news outlets stated that the area needs the jobs and revenue created by the facility and were hopeful that the center would reopen.
“We have a very good relationship with the county and local community, and they’re supportive of our efforts to rehabilitate individuals in our care and at the same time boost the local economy through good, solid jobs,” Arnita wrote.
Now, local officials and MTC continue to wait for ICE’s decision on whether Uinta County is a suitable location for the detention center. Arnita, the MTC spokesperson, said the company did not know when ICE would make the decision or, if Uinta County was selected, how long it would take to build and open the facility.
If ICE awarded MTC the contract, the company would then contract out the construction of the facility, Arnita said. Generally, locals are hired for some of that work, he said. The company would need between 170 and 200 employees to run the facility. Arnita said the company expects to fill about 80 percent of those jobs locally.
Fraughton, the county commissioner, said the county needs those jobs, both in short-term construction work as well as long-term employment at the complete facility. The number of jobs and personal income in the county has declined steadily since about 2010, according to the state’s economic analysis division. The other two county commissioners did not respond to calls for comment for this story.
Additionally, the company would lease land from the county and pay taxes, creating additional revenue, though Fraughton said he didn’t know exactly how much money the project could net for the county and its residents. A wide majority of people he’s spoken to said they’re in favor of the detention center, he said.
“The negative comments have been at a minimum,” he said.
Fraughton had not researched MTC’s problems in Texas beyond reading some letters to the editor. He said he was not worried about a riot similar to what happened in Texas because the detainees at the proposed detention center would be staying for shorter periods of time and many would not be convicted of crimes.
Mayor Williams echoed that sentiment: “In my mind, it’s an apples and oranges kind of thing,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s a fair assumption to say that because of (the problems in Texas) that we’re going to have problems.”
Arnita also noted the difference between the Bureau of Prison inmates who caused the Texas riot and the detainees that would be held at the Uinta County facility.
“There is a great distinction between the two populations and the risk levels they pose,” he wrote.
Neither Fraughton nor Williams had heard of the issues at the company’s New Mexico facility, but the description of them did not appear to particularly concern them.
“Anywhere, there’s going to be some mismanagement,” Fraughton said.
Uinta County officials reached out to county leaders and law enforcement in California, which also host MTC immigration detention centers, Fraughton said. Those officials gave no negative feedback, he said. Uinta County officials also plan to visit the MTC facility in Calexico, California.
But a looming legal question remains. As reported by WyoFile, Wyoming statute requires that local governing bodies obtain the approval of the state’s five elected officials — the governor, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state — before contracting with a private prison company. However, the governor’s office told the nonprofit news organization that MTC’s proposed facility does not need that approval.
Neither the governor’s office nor the attorney general’s office gave Wyofile further details. A spokesman for the governor referred a question from the Star-Tribune asking for clarification to the attorney general’s office, which did not respond before publication.
In the meantime, the state’s immigration rights groups are organizing. The WyoSayNo coalition — comprised in part by Cheyenne-based Juntos, University of Wyoming group Mecha, the ACLU of Wyoming, the Equality State Policy Center, Wyoming Equality and the Immigration Alliance of Casper — is working to stir grassroots opposition to the proposed detention center. The coalition is hosting a rally in Cheyenne on Jan. 13 and groups across the state will host satellite events, including in Lander, Salt Lake, Laramie and Casper.
Antonio Serrano, chairman of Juntos and a lead organizer of WyoSayNo, warned that none of the ICE detention facilities run by private companies are as safe or clean as the companies claim. The facility won’t make the state safer, he added, because many of those held there won’t be criminals.
“I love Wyoming: the wind, the snow, the community,” the Wyoming native said. “This will only cause more divisions. It’s going to be a bad mark on the state.”
BAR NUNN — It’s hard to say whether this former airstrip is a small town or an extension of Casper. It’s only 10 minutes from the city, depending on traffic, but many residents say it’s a world apart: few services other than a bar, restaurant and gas station.
“Bar Nunn is a lot better than living in Casper,” said Gale Gunzenhauser, 75, who has lived in the town of just under 3,000 people for four decades. “It’s not crowded. I know my neighbors and my neighbors know me, but nobody bothers nobody.”
The town may not be tiny by Wyoming standards, but it is small enough that Gunzenhauser felt it was worth the move there to escape the sound of beer bottles breaking on the sidewalk outside his Casper apartment. In Bar Nunn, Gunzenhauser said, you couldn’t hear the bottles breaking: the sidewalks were made of dirt.
Shirley Farley, another town resident, said she used to live in Greybull, in the Big Horn Basin region of Wyoming. But Greybull felt too small, Farley said. Despite having less than 1,000 more residents within its town limits, Bar Nunn is perfect.
“You don’t get all the city noises,” she said. “But it’s still (just) like 15, 20 minutes to go to Walmart.”
Bar Nunn illustrates the complexity of small town in life in Wyoming, where the importance of a community is often dictated by what surrounds it or what it offers rather than the population listed on the green sign at the edge of town.
During the coming year, the Star-Tribune will be examining life in Wyoming’s small towns and answering the question of how and why they persist in an age of increasing urbanization. Last year marked the first decline in rural counties across the nation ever recorded, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The series will explore the different aspects of small town life — from the challenge of long drives to buy food and difficult access to health care, to the pleasures of country-living and knowing your neighbors — in every corner of the state.
“Rural” means different things to different people.
The U.S. Census Bureau, for one, has a roundabout way of defining the term. It considers urbanized areas to have more than 50,000 people and “urban clusters” to have at least 2,500.
“Rural is what is left,” Census researcher Michael Ratcliffe wrote in a an article two years ago.
Another popular federal definition considers a county rural if it doesn’t have a city with at least 50,000 people.
By that standard, Sheridan, Gillette and Rock Springs are all too small to rate as significant population centers. But in Wyoming, people have a slightly different view of what counts as a city — and what counts as a small town.
University of New Hampshire professor Ken Johnson, an expert on rural life in America, said that the definition of “rural” varies significantly depending on where one lives.
“Casper would be considered a big place by almost anybody who lives in rural America, whereas I’ve seen people in Chicago talking about St. Louis or Des Moines as if it were small, ” he said.
Johnson said people in rural America have different standards for what qualifies as big and small. The presence of a hospital, a county courthouse or even a Walmart can all be used to draw the line between town and country.
In a recent online survey, Star-Tribune readers were split on how many people live in a Wyoming “small town.” Twenty-seven percent though it was any place with fewer than 20,000 people while nearly 22 percent thought a small town in the Cowboy State had no more than 1,500 people.
Travis Kulhavy, a 28-year-old Bar Nunn resident, had a more stringent definition.
“Small town is, like, Bill,” Kulhavy said.
Shorthand for the truly small Wyoming town, Bill’s population doubled during the last oil boom from four or five people to 11. Then it fell again. Now a 10-person mancam of oil field workers set up outside the town’s bar has boosted the head count again.
Mark Horning, owner of the Dry Creek Saloon in Bill, said the town’s commercial viability remains as tenuous as it is in many tiny Wyoming communities.
“I have guys that come in here for lunch. They come in here at night,” Horning said. “But then again, they could at any notice tell me they are moving out in two weeks.”
Wyoming has its own classification of smallness, rating every municipality with a population of at least 4,000 as a “first-class city” for legal purposes, lumping Douglas and Worland in with their larger neighbors, Casper and Cheyenne.
But there are relatively few cities in Wyoming that hit the 4,000 mark. Wyoming Association of Municipalities Executive Director Rick Kaysen said half of his organization’s 99 members have fewer than 500 residents.
Since its settlement by whites, Wyoming has largely fit the typical conceptions of rural: ranches and roughnecks, long distances from town-to-town and no big cities on par even with Denver. Challenges have always faced small towns in the state, but today, Wyoming’s small towns face pressure from a variety of new sources.
The cost of providing services to a community of several hundred is often the same as providing them one of several thousand. The per capita disparity can be especially glaring as the Legislature grapples with a roughly $700 million deficit during the coming budget cycle. Much of the revenue hole is due to the state’s high cost of education, related in part to serving rural areas where relatively few students live and transportation costs are high. As Wyoming’s population shrinks amid the ongoing down economy for energy, economic analysts say that young people are flocking from rural areas and small cities to big metropolitan areas — which Wyoming doesn’t have any of.
Yet small communities continue to hold significant sway among lawmakers. House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, expressed skepticism last fall that moves to cut rural schools would gain any traction in the Legislature.
“We could shut down small-town Wyoming. We could take our high schools and cut the numbers in half. We could bus all of Glenrock to Casper,” he said. “Let’s have those votes. Good luck.”
Kaysen, of the cities group, said this support is appropriate. The government has an obligation to provide for everyone, even if the costs of helping some are disproportionate.
“Why does the United States of America send a lot of money outside of its borders to help people across the oceans? A lot of humanitarian needs are there,” Kaysen said. “Well, in a manner of speaking, that’s what we’re doing in Wyoming as well.”
In addition to enabling people to live wherever they like in Wyoming, allowing some of the smallest towns to survive also serves a crucial role in such a sparsely populated state.
Leda Price, mayor of Wyoming’s smallest incorporated town, Lost Springs, said that the community serves a role far larger than its population of six — including two part-time residents — might suggest.
Lost Springs sits about halfway between Douglas and Lusk, and Price said heavy tanker trucks heading to and from the oil fields north of town rely on Lost Springs’ main street. When the street is worn down, a city councilman patches it with what Price described as “a kind of sticky substance” that is sold in big bags at a nearby lumber yard.
Come winter, hunters camp for free in the town and Price feeds them through her part-time catering service.
The town hall is used by women who live on ranches outside of town for branding dinners and card games that sometimes attract up to 40 people. A communal auction over the summer draws a couple hundred. The rental rates are cheap and people know to clean up after themselves.
“They just put it back how they found it,” she said.
While Lost Springs no longer has a gas station, Price still helps out travelers who get stranded on the stretch of road between Orinn and Manville and end up knocking on Price’s door. She has taken it upon herself to keep a 5-gallon can of gasoline on hand.
Price works in Douglas and said other town residents work there, in Bill and in Glenrock. She doesn’t defend Lost Springs for its practical benefits to travelers or oil companies. For her, it’s just home.
She tried living in Douglas, population 6,500, but found it wasn’t the same. She missed her garden and knowing her neighbors would come help her if she needed anything. She missed feeding the hunters and hosting events at Lost Bar, the local tavern that she owns.
“I got homesick,” she said.
Staff writer Heather Richards contributed reporting from Bill
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Greybull had a larger population than Bar Nunn. In fact, Bar Nunn has more residents. The article has been updated to reflect this.
For the past 26 years, more than 700,000 acres of Wyoming land – roughly one-third the size of Yellowstone National Park – have been hanging in limbo.
They’re stretches of wind-swept, sage brush-covered prairie, high rocky outcrops and rugged mountainsides, all set aside decades ago as possible wilderness. They are called study areas, and only Congress can formally change their designation.
But for the last couple of years, small groups of diverse Wyomingites, from hunters and ranchers to climbers and energy interests, have been sitting down in counties across the state and trying to decide on a future for the pieces of soil. Perhaps, group members have said, a locally-driven solution would help put controversy over the lands to rest.
While many applaud the collaborative process, others are tired of waiting.
And U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney wants a decision sooner rather than later.
“In order to actually release these (areas), we have to have Congressional action,” Cheney said recently. “So we’re looking at ways we might be able to do that in a more timely fashion.”
Cheney is crafting a bill that would make a decision on these parcels – either to release them from their de-facto wilderness status or set them aside to be wild forever.
It’s a move that county commissioners, ranchers and others have asked for in the state, she says. They want closure, and they want it now. Others fear the move is another example of Washington D.C. coming to Wyoming to endanger, and possibly overrule, a local collaborative process that’s nearing the finish line.
Wilderness Study Areas were part of a 1976 mandate for the Bureau of Land Management to inventory areas with “wilderness suitability.”
The request came after the Wilderness Act permanently set aside portions of land to protect from future development. Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, was instrumental in helping pass the Wyoming Wilderness Act in 1984.
The goal, according to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, was to identify areas that retained wilderness characteristics such as “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
In Wyoming, BLM recommended 42 pieces of land be examined as wilderness study areas, from the 487-acre Whiskey Mountain area near Dubois to the 6,300-acre Lankin Dome in Fremont County. Another three areas are managed by the Forest Service.
Then in 1991, BLM released a report suggesting some of the parcels should become formal wilderness and others should go back to multi-use land.
But other than an attempt in 2011 by Sen. John Barrasso to follow those BLM recommendations, nothing has happened with the land. They’ve been managed largely as wilderness areas to protect their wildness, which means no motorized use or development.
And so in late 2015, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association launched the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative. It was an attempt to find a local solution for the areas to then take to Congress for review, said former Fremont County Commissioner Doug Thompson, who has been involved in the process.
“This is proactive. We will tell them what we want, rather than someone saying we will put them all back into (wilderness or) hard release,” Thompson said in 2016. “I would like us locals to solve the problem and clarify it.”
Eight Wyoming counties — including Carbon, Fremont, Sublette and Washakie — signed onto the collaborative approach. Others either declined to participate or did not support the process.
Natrona County joined together with Fremont County to decide on a future for the Split Rock Wilderness Study Area, which straddles the county line, said Rob Hendry, Natrona County Commissioner and president of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
Many conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, also participated.
“The WPLI process is important because it involves all the interest groups and it’s an opportunity to change the status quo,” said Dan Smitherman, Wyoming representative for The Wilderness Society. “Everybody is at the table and gets their voices heard and interests represented. This approach to land management has been successful in other places in the West.”
Rep. Cheney said that her staff is working on a bill, and has circulated a draft to some local groups including county commissioners. It isn’t final, and she doesn’t have a timeline for when it will be introduced.
While the public lands initiative has been “a really useful exercise,” it needs to reach a conclusion, she said.
“We need to make sure we’re all working toward closure,” Cheney said. “It’s not an open-ended process. We want to avoid any efforts that are made to stall or not move forward.”
She doesn’t see the legislative process as undermining the local effort that has progressed through the public lands initiative. She’s also worked with local groups including the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and the Association for Multiple Land Use.
“We’re interested in doing what makes sense in terms of individual counties, balancing their interests,” she said. “From my perspective, the process is important, but much more important, how do people in those counties feel about their ability to access those WSAs? Do they feel as though businesses have been shut out or sportsmen have been shut out? Do they feel the court system has shut them out?”
This isn’t the only bill related to wilderness areas Cheney is working on. In December, she introduced a bill that would dramatically increase the amount of heli-skiing allowed in wilderness areas. The bill was crafted without the say of local officials, reported the Jackson Hole News and Guide.
Cheney plans to talk to Pete Obermueller, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, and Hendry, the county commissioner, next week in D.C. about the public lands initiative.
Hendry said he hasn’t had a chance to talk to Cheney yet about the bill, but looks forward to their visit. He supports the public lands initiative process and the way it has gathered all interest groups together at the table.
He also hopes the bill supports the recommendations of the local groups.
“No matter what happens, they will always remain public land,” he said, explaining that if the areas are released from the wilderness study designation, they will go back to being managed as multiple-use BLM or Forest Service land.
Wyoming has a process in place to find a solution to the lands, said the Wilderness Society’s Smitherman, and it should be allowed to continue.
Smitherman also did not know the timing of the bill, and hadn’t seen a draft.
The possibility of a bill mandating an outcome has already caused some working groups to question if they should continue, Smitherman said.
“From the conservation sportsman’s perspective, regardless of what the bill says, we view it as an end run around WPLI,” he said.
Other sportsman’s groups are worried about wasted time over the past two years of meetings.
“Rep. Cheney’s proposal would ignore local input, create unnecessary conflict, and disregard the thousands of hours that many of us have invested in these discussions,” said Don Saner, of the Wyoming Backcountry Horsemen. “On behalf of the Backcountry Horsemen, we urge her to support locally driven collaboratives and honor the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative.”
Thompson, the former Fremont County Commissioner and chairman of the Fremont County public lands initiative group, isn’t necessarily concerned about Cheney’s bill. His group hopes to have its recommendations out by April for Congress to examine. He just hopes the legislation doesn’t interfere with those objectives.
Either way, he said, passing a bill through Congress, even one where one party controls both houses, is not a quick process.
“I think people are forgetting about getting a piece of legislation passed in Congress doesn’t get passed overnight,” he said. “We would be looking a year or two down the road. I think people are getting really concerned over something that could happen, but even if it does move forward it wouldn’t be an immediate process.”