SPLIT ROCK — About 350,000 pioneers shuffled past this spot along the meandering Sweetwater River in the mid-1800s.
None would stay. They sought a better life in places like Utah, Oregon or California.
Only a few people ended up homesteading years later. Their mark on the land is barely visible from the Split Rock rest area on U.S. Highway 287.
Now, mostly climbers and hikers visit this place called Lankin Dome — named for its granite face.
About 6,300 acres surrounding the dome were set aside in 1991 as a Wilderness Study Area. The designation was essentially the federal government’s way of saying it should somehow be protected, but officials didn’t know to what capacity. The label was never meant to stick.
Twenty-five years later, a coalition of Wyoming county commissioners is working with local landowners, recreationists, conservationists, ranchers and energy interests to decide exactly what Lankin Dome and 44 other Wilderness Study Areas scattered across Wyoming should become. The possibilities are endless, some say. They could be highly restricted wilderness, they could be opened to mountain biking, four-wheeling or energy extraction. Either way, many agree, this limbo shouldn’t continue.
Some outdoor enthusiasts are entering the process with caution, worried the effort could turn into another attempt to grab federal land. Others praise the process as a way to sit down with varied interests and decide, on a local level, the best future for the parcels. No matter what the conclusion, any changes would require Congressional approval.
“If we don’t do it, if the people who live and work and play here don’t do it, there’s a chance Congress will do it unilaterally,” said Dan Smitherman, the Wilderness Society’s Wyoming representative. “We are looking for certainty.”
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When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, lawmakers quickly designated some relatively untouched tracts of Wyoming land as wilderness. Areas such as the Teton and Washakie wilderness made the first cut, while the iconic Cloud Peak and Gros Ventre wilderness areas weren’t placed on the list until decades later.
At its most basic, a wilderness designation preserves land in its most natural state. It prohibits energy extraction or timber harvest and all motorized vehicles or tools, from power drills to mountain bikes to ATVs.
In 1976, the federal government directed the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to inventory all of its lands for “wilderness characteristics,” said Julia Stuble, public lands advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
Wilderness characteristics included things like “areas untrammeled by man” and “opportunities for solitude,” she said.
Decades later, in 1991, the BLM released its list of Wilderness Study Areas.
Wyoming has 45 of them, ranging in size from the 487-acre Whiskey Mountain area near Dubois to the 82,584-acre Palisades Wilderness Study Area in northwest Wyoming. The BLM manages 42, the U.S. Forest Service runs three. In total, they add up to about 700,000 acres.
“When they were originally designated it was understood this was a temporary designation and they would be dealt with in a reasonable amount of time,” Smitherman said.
But they weren’t. One decade passed; then another. They were managed as defacto wilderness, Smitherman said, while being chipped away at the edges by mountain bike trails or other motorized uses.
Then in November, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association launched what it called the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative.
The goal, said Doug Thompson, a Fremont County Commissioner and rancher, is to find local consensus for what to do with the areas. Some of them may become wilderness, others could revert back to the BLM or Forest Service to be managed like the surrounding lands. Some could end up somewhere in between.
If nothing is done, Congress could decide to simply release all of the lands back to their respective federal management agencies.
“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. “I would like us locals to solve the problem and clarify it.”
One thing Thompson, Smitherman and Stuble agree on is this: The Public Lands Initiative is not a federal land grab.
Even if all the lands were released from their Wilderness Study Area designations, they would still belong to the federal government, and would be managed under the same umbrella as nearby lands. They would not go to the state.
But concerns that this could be a land grab are not unfounded, said Nick Dobric, Wyoming Field Representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Efforts across the country have been made, and are being made, to turn federal land over to state control. Even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican running for president, said recently he wanted to turn federal land in Nevada over to the state.
“There are two very separate efforts, one is very toxic and (one) could be very rewarding,” Dobric said. “The big red flag with us, and other sportsmen’s groups, is if this becomes an effort to make this a seizure of public lands and take over ownership, that will be dead on arrival, and we will fight that.”
If federal public land is transferred to states, it could more easily be sold or closed off to the public, say many in the outdoor recreation and conservation communities.
The group of people championing the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative say the lands will stay public in federal hands.
Those involved in the initiative vary by interest and by county. What they want, said Thompson, is for local interests to decide, collectively, the best future for sections of land caught in legislative limbo.
Some of the areas may be more controversial than others. The Lankin Dome study area in central Wyoming, for example, doesn’t have many conflicting interests, Thompson and Smitherman both said.
Other areas, like the Palisades Wilderness Study Area in northwest Wyoming, may see more conflict because it is a popular area for snowmobiling, heli-skiing and mountain biking, Smitherman said. Those then collide with more classic wilderness advocates.
Anything the group decides will rest in the hands of congressional leaders in Washington.
A December letter signed by Wyoming Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi and Rep. Cynthia Lummis expressed support for the effort.
“The Wyoming congressional delegation believes that a ground-up approach gives Wyoming’s citizens the best chance to decide how to treat these lands,” the letter stated. “We look forward to the creation of locally driven, Wyoming-specific recommendations.”
For climbers such as Elyse Guarino with the Central Wyoming Climbers Alliance, the biggest hope for the effort is some clarity in the Lankin Dome area.
With Wilderness Study Areas, she’s not quite sure what may or may not be allowed. The boundaries aren’t usually clearly marked, and climbers in her group don’t want to tangle with landowners.
If the area becomes formal wilderness, groups like the National Outdoor Leadership School wouldn’t be able to use power drills to rig climbing routes, said Andy Blair, assistant director of the NOLS Rocky Mountain branch. The group’s biggest concern is any change that would prevent them from using Lankin Dome in the future, he added.
“Both Lankin Dome and Split Rock are great places for us to use with our students and teach fundamental climbing skills,” Blair said.
In some respects, Lankin Dome might actually be less used than popular wilderness areas like Cloud Peak, Stuble said. Fewer people use it now than did 150 years ago. Many of the Wilderness Study Areas are similar.
“That forgotten nature is a piece of what challenges management in the future, too,” Stuble said. “It’s a value and a risk that they’ve been forgotten.”