OPINION: Sweetwater County Wilderness Areas are Under Attack

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Indian Prayer Circle nearby a Wilderness Study Area in Sweetwater County. Photo by Tom Gagnon
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The following was written and submitted by Tom Gagnon.

Wilderness, Old English for “self-willed land,” is suggestive of the American spirit of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and adventurousness –these characteristics receiving birth from Wilderness itself. Return visits for us and for future generations is a restorative to the world’s continuation. It’s sort of like visiting with great, great, great, great, grandparents.

What remains of legally designated Wilderness Areas, and Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), which are, ideally, future Wilderness Areas, are important for several reasons, such as preserving the biological diversity of all creatures, for us to experience listening to nature unmarred by motorized sounds, to walk on primitive paths or none at all, and to provide health giving and priceless air and water, and habitat for wildlife. Note that the Wilderness Act does not preclude hunting, nor, necessarily, all grazing.

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Recently, however, all over the West and here in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, they are under attack. Here it is from, surprisingly, the so-called “Conservation District”, which knows and cares little about conservation.

The members themselves are in the cattle and sheep industries, which they promote at the expense of wildlife and water quality. They are also promoting motorized recreation everywhere, and unlimited drilling and mining.

RS 2477 is part of a broader law dating to the presidency of Andrew Johnson (until lately considered our worst president) in 1866. It was designed to help stitch the nation together after the terrible Civil War, by encouraging the construction of roads to facilitate settlement, especially in the wide open spaces of the West.

This relic of the frontier was largely forgotten, and then was repealed in 1976, as part of a new way of managing land with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Twin Buttes Wilderness Study Area. Photo by Tom Gagnon

Where I live, the Sweetwater County Conservation District (SWCCD) is absolutely obsessed with RS 2477. Why, you ask, would they waste their time, and the public’s money, with this old law? Their motive is to roll back the protective designation of this county’s thirteen WSAs, and to prevent other areas, such as the Vermillion Badlands, from consideration for Wilderness designation. Other conservation districts in Wyoming are probably doing this too.

In recent years, RS 2477 has seen its greatest use in Alaska and Utah, but increasingly all over the West. The thinking goes that anything that was a “road” can disqualify an area from wilderness designation.

The truth, however, is that they are interpreting and hoping to use this former law incorrectly, and willfully misinterpreting the 1964 Wilderness Act.

What they are doing is filing quiet-title actions, which in view of the forty-two intervening years since RS 2477’s repeal, is legally pretty weak. Still, they’re giving it a shot, and hoping to grandfather in a bunch of so-called roads.

They are doing this by mapping all the “roads” in the county. In some places they are even visiting nursing homes to obtain depositions on the use of “roads” from long ago. If someone walked a mule across a hillside between 1866 and 1976, well, “It’s obviously a road!”

An Indian Prayer Circle nearby a Wilderness Study Area in Sweetwater County. Photo by Tom Gagnon

The users of RS 2477 believe that these barely visible tracks can disqualify many of our unique landscapes from Wilderness consideration. That, however, is a deliberate misreading of the Wilderness Act.

The word “pristine” never once appears in the act. Many of today’s Wilderness Areas had various developments on them, like roads and structures, yet they were still designated Wilderness Areas. The roads were blocked, and structures sometimes removed, after Wilderness designation. A Wilderness Area just has to be “substantially” wild.

Here in Sweetwater County, our WSAs are in desert or near-desert places. They total only about 3.7% of this huge county, yet anti-Wilderness politicians, like county commissioner John Kolb, say that conservation-minded people need to learn to compromise.

It has been rumored, however, that Kolb is given to problems with keeping things in proportion. It’s not like 95% is being demanded, and never another well to be drilled.

Cattle on the public lands i Sweetwater County. Photo by Tom Gagnon

Kolb, and the SWCCD, want all the WSA designations dropped and the land returned to multiple-use status, thinking, falsely, that it can then be better managed by locals. On the other hand, however, there’s nothing stopping locals from working for the federal government, and many do, here and all over the world.

If this were a “locals’ club”, that might create the best conditions of all for mismanagement and corruption. A major component needed for managing the land is money, and the feds have more of it than we do. Besides, they own it. An interesting maxim is, the best ruler is strong and far away; the worst is weak and close.

Our SWCCD is collecting junk data, they are ill advising our county commissioners and misleading the public. We need Wilderness.