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Wyoming governor signs agreement with Secretary Sonny Perdue over forest and grassland management
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Wyoming governor signs agreement with Secretary Sonny Perdue over forest and grassland management

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Pine Beetle Damage

Dead trees mix with green ones in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest near Ryan Park in 2010. 

Gov. Mark Gordon announced this week he had reinvigorated a new stewardship agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to clarify the role of the state and federal government in managing Wyoming’s abundant forests and grasslands.

The governor and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed the shared stewardship agreement in a virtual ceremony at the Wyoming State Capitol on Tuesday.

“This agreement strengthens the already strong partnership between the Forest Service and the State of Wyoming,” Perdue said in a statement. “Through Shared Stewardship, Wyoming and the Forest Service will work together to identify landscape-scale priorities and build capacity to improve forest conditions.”

The Department of Agriculture established the shared stewardship strategy in 2018. The new strategy overhauled how the agency approached partnering with states and other entities in managing the risk of wildfires as well as other risks to national forests and surrounding communities.

The agreement lays out a general plan for the state and federal leaders to share resources and increase coordination on projects to protect the state’s natural resources from wildfires, invasive species, watershed degradation and other threats. The agreement acts as an umbrella to improve collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service and the state, given projects often cross manmade boundaries. But some environmental groups worry the agreement could open the doors to more commercial logging within national forests or limit meaningful opportunities for public input.

“I am excited to sign this agreement today with Secretary Perdue,” Gordon said in a statement. “It marks an increased opportunity for us to combine expertise and resources, better our National Forests and Grasslands, and serve all of the citizens of Wyoming. The importance of our National Forest System lands, to our communities, for water, for businesses like logging and agriculture, and just for general enjoyment cannot be (overstated).”

According to the signed agreement provided to the Star-Tribune, the state will take the lead in organizing discussions with experts from the field when developing management strategies. Wyoming public officials will then work with the federal government to identify high-priority areas needing attention and the scale or scope of management projects, while also sharing financial resources.

Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department, an agency frequently involved in forest management projects, welcomed the new agreement.

“Wyoming Game and Fish has a strong working relationship with USDA and this agreement furthers our existing partnership,” Brian Nesvik, the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said in a statement. “We look forward to using this agreement to help accomplish initiatives like the Governor’s Invasive Species Initiative and other large-scale projects.”

The renewed effort to collaborate comes as wildfires rage across the arid West, including in Wyoming.

Between 2000 to 2018, wildfires burned roughly two times more land than the period between 1985 and 1999, according to data collected from the National Interagency Fire Center.

“The challenges we face today, such as catastrophic wildfires, invasive species and insect and disease outbreaks, transcend boundaries and affect multiple jurisdictions,” the USDA Forest Service wrote in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before, so tackling these challenges requires an all hands, all lands approach. Under the agreement, we will develop a program of work that focuses on landscape-scale forest and grassland restoration activities that protect at-risk communities and watersheds across all lands. Together, we will work to manage risks effectively and improve forest.”

Diverging approaches

Despite state leaders’ enthusiasm for the new stewardship plan, not all Wyomingites are so convinced it’s an agreement in the best interest of the public, or the environment.

“It’s completely lacking detail,” Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, said in response to the new agreement. “So it’s going to be challenging if not impossible to understand what it could mean.”

Wilbert and other environmental groups contacted by the Star-Tribune worry the new agreement will do the opposite of what state and federal officials promise. The management strategies endorsed in the agreement could instead compromise the forest ecosystem by allowing substantial clearing and commercial harvesting of timber, along with road construction, they said.

Some predict the agreement will likely expedite commercial logging projects across the country and may be in response to President Donald Trump’s 2018 executive order requiring the Forest Service to increase logging by over 30% above 2017 levels in national forests.

Wilbert questioned the Forest Services new approach to landscape-scale forest management too, saying it could potentially exacerbate the risk of wildfires. Moreover, the agreement does not take enough steps to address the consequences of climate change and rising rates of carbon dioxide, she said. 

“There is an increasing body of science that is telling us that an ecologically healthy forest stores far more carbon than a logged or thinned forest,” Wilbert explained. “Even a forest that has burned stores more carbon than a logged forest. If you are concerned about climate change, which I hope by now we all are, and you’re looking for a comprehensive solutions that will help us deal with climate change, managing forests to be ecologically healthy is the best thing we can do for storing carbon.”

Furthermore, Wilbert and others fear ceding more authority to the state will privilege commercial interests, erode transparency and reduce opportunities for the public to meaningfully participate in shaping proposed forest management projects.

“How are we going to balance immediate state and short-term interests against long-term national interest from the owners of these lands: the public?” Wilbert asked.

The shared stewardship agreement also arrives just weeks after the U.S. Forest Service approved a controversial forest restoration project in southeastern Wyoming aimed at addressing mountain pine beetle infestation, the severity of wildfires and other shifting forest vegetation conditions. The Medicine Bow Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, known as LaVA, grants the Forest Service the authority to remove and sell beetle-killed timber, with the goal of reducing the risk of wildfires and improving overall forest conditions. The plan’s approval also allows several types of forest management treatments to occur across 288,000 acres throughout the next 15 years, including prescribed burns and tree thinning in the Snowy and Sierra Madre mountain ranges.

“The development of LaVA took place prior to this agreement, but the principles on which it was developed are the same,” the USDA Forest Service said in a statement.

The shared stewardship agreement will be a “living document,” reviewed on a biennial basis, according to the signed agreement provided to the Star-Tribune.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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