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.”