State lawmakers bristled Thursday at a proposal to increase environmental protections in parts of the Red Desert, expressing concerns it would hinder oil and gas development and harm the state economy.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council’s proposal would establish a National Conservation Area on 1.5 million to 2 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The designation requires an act of Congress, which would likely take years to secure. If passed, it would permanently preserve the region’s cultural and environmental resources.
Wyoming legislators greeted the plan with skepticism, worrying it would limit everything from motorized vehicle access and grazing to mineral extraction.
“It would be a very costly thing if we were to stop that progress,” Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Glenrock, said in response to testimony from an energy industry representative over how such a designation would affect oil and gas development.
Those comments were delivered at a Casper meeting of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Federal Natural Resource Management. The hearing set the stage for a potential confrontation between industry and environmentalists over the Red Desert, primarily in southwestern Wyoming.
Industry advocates said the desert has considerable development potential and that a conservation designation would hamper economic development.
Dennis Ellis, government relations advisor for Anadarko Petroleum Corp., noted that land ownership in parts of the desert is like a checkerboard, with small private parcels interspersed among similar state and federal plots. Restricting access on federal land could effectively prevent private landowners from reaching their property, he said.
“In an instance like this, an NCA designation over private lands sterilizes the uses of it,” he said. “When we’re intermingled with the BLM land like that, what happens on BLM land happens on our land.”
Environmentalists emphasized that the plan is in its infancy, with ample time to address industry concerns. The original map presented by the Wyoming Outdoor Council encompassed two parcels, one in the area of Adobe Town and the other in the vicinity of the Jack Morrow Hills.
Richard Garrett, legislative advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said that map may need to be altered as discussions progress. He conceded that checkerboard areas present difficult hurdles for any conservation designation.
The designation’s protections are nonetheless needed to preserve the desert’s unique environmental and cultural history, Garrett said. The region is crucial habitat for sage grouse, winter and calving grounds for migrating elk and home to the state’s sole desert elk herd. The Oregon Trail runs through it and petroglyphs can be found at several sites.
The region already has several protected areas, such as Wilderness Study Areas and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, but those are subject to change with the renewal of each resource management plan, which governs the BLM’s management areas, he said.
“Resource management plans generally have a lifespan of five to 20 years. That protection would be temporary and not multi-generational,” Garrett said in an interview following the meeting. “Our mission is to help the Wyoming landscape, water and air for generations. Not just for 20 years.”
Jim Magagna is the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. He worries about what increased regulation from Washington would mean for Wyoming ranchers. He said his organization has grave concerns about a conservation designation.
“We believe we can coexist out there maintaining the scenic views, the historic values, the energy development as it takes place, the livestock grazing,” he said. “They’re all compatible when they’re properly done.”
Questions lingered during the hearing about how National Conservation Area designations actually work. One exchange over grazing rights illustrated the confusion. Garrett told committee members that existing oil and gas operations and grazing leases are allowed to continue under conservation designations.
Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, asked Garrett if an existing grazing lease could be extended once it reached its expiration date. Garrett didn’t know the answer.
National Conservation Area designations are ultimately site-specific, said JoLynn Worley, a spokeswoman for the BLM office in Nevada. The Silver State has three such designations. Congress writes an individual bill for each area to account for the varying interests of that area, she said.
National Conservation Areas do not necessarily prohibit mineral extraction, grazing or other activities, she said, noting that the The Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area in northwest Nevada allows for continued grazing on all areas where it was previously permitted.
“I think a lot of people confuse NCA with national parks and wilderness, but they’re not the same in that wilderness [designations] fall under the Wilderness Act, which prescribes certain things,” she said. “There is not an NCA act that provides guidance as to how a NCA should be managed.”
Committee members voted to send a letter to Wyoming’s congressional delegation expressing their reservations about the idea. Sen. Gerald Geis, R-Worland, seemed to capture the mood of the committee.
“There are areas that need to be protected, but not the broad scope that is being proposed now,” he said.