GREEN RIVER — In a split vote yesterday after a lengthy public hearing on the future of Sweetwater County Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), the Sweetwater County Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of recommending a full release of federal protections for all 13 WSAs.
The public hearing was spurred after Congressman Liz Cheney asked for the county’s recommendation on WSAs–and asked for it by mid-April.
The county’s recommendations, according to commissioners, will be built into draft Congressional legislation regarding the future of WSAs.
Commissioners have been scrambling to assess public opinion on what should be done with the 252,074 federal acres.
What the BLM Recommended
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has studied and completed publications on the WSAs. BLM made a recommendation to Congress on which WSAs should carry the federal designation and protections of wilderness back back in 1991.
Out of the 13 WSAs in Sweetwater County, only three were recommended for 100% wilderness: Devil’s Playground, Twin Buttes, and Oregon Buttes.
Four more were recommended for partial acreage to be designated as wilderness: Adobe Town, Buffalo Hump, Sand Dunes, Honey Comb Buttes.
The remaining six were recommended to be dropped from wilderness consideration.
Congress did not take action and, according to many of the opinion at the forum, the acreage has been stuck in limbo for the 27 years since.
The Main Questions Up for Debate
The main questions asked of the public were whether those lands should remain protected as wilderness, remain protected until the BLM’s Resource Management Plan (RMP) is finished, be modified so that the 1991 recommendations for wilderness are honored, or if the none of the lands should have the federal protection.
The public comment period brought forth people on all sides of the issue, with multiple commissioners saying that opinions seemed like a 50/50 split.
Many people were in favor of multiple use, but even definitions on that varied.
Some thought mineral and grazing resources should be explored there, while others wanted it for recreation with mechanized movement allowed.
Others want to preserve one of the very few wilderness spaces left in the U.S., spaces that only account for 3.7% of Sweetwater County.
According to the commissioners and several others who spoke on the issue, wilderness designations generally require no mechanized movement, just horseback and on foot.
The Opinions of the Commissioners
Opinions of the commissioners were split, as well.
The votes of commissioners John Kolb, Wally Johnson, and Don Van Matre were cast in favor of asking for total removal of the federal designations. They said that these lands have been held in limbo too long and can be managed better locally.
“I believe, like John, it’s 50/50. But it’s time for us to take action. It’s not 27 years. It’s 38 years. That decision should have been made in 1991 when the recommendation was made by the BLM. At that time, if congress would have acted, this would be history.”
– Wally Johnson
Commissioners Reid West and Randy Wendling were a no on that recommendation, saying that a longer, more thorough process was needed.
“I don’t understand what the need is to change their status. I believe we ought to deal with it and Congress ought to deal with it. And that it requires us to have a public process that involves all those interested parties and stakeholders to have a seat at the table and do it right”
– Reid West
RMP’s, WPLI’s, and Other Acronyms
West said he would even be in favor of waiting for a completed Resource Management Plan (RMP) to make an informed decision.
What’s an RMP? It’s the document that guides the BLM in managing the public lands and it’s vetted with public comment periods. They take years to finish the process and ours has been in the works for seven years.
The BLM went through the process of updating the RMPs in the state and Rock Springs is the last to be finished, with a draft estimated to come out in August 2018.
The completion of an RMP, in fact, is what made commissioners hold off on participating in the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI). The WPLI is a committee-based process that was specifically aimed at finding out what the public wants to do with WSAs. You can read all about WPLI here.
Other counties are years into the WPLI process, which will send Congress legislation via Senator John Barrasso. The counties participating in WPLI were supposed to be at the point of handing in their recommendations by early 2018.
Critics of the new legislation that Cheney would like to create call it hasty and curtailing a process that’s already been in place.
And others, still, see the longer, more public process as the one that’s going to win out in the end.
“If it makes anyone feel any better on either side of it, I don’t think this is going anywhere,” said West after the vote.