SUBLETTE COUNTY – After spending a year and a half on meetings, field trips and lots of homework about three wilderness study areas, Sublette County’s Wyoming Public Lands Initiative advisory committee was taken aback by Rep. Liz Cheney’s new bill to amend the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act.
And Cheney is drafting another wilderness bill while local WPLI processes continue – without questions or comments to anyone involved in the collaboration, they said.
“Distressing” and “disturbing” were two words used by Sublette WPLI members at their Wednesday, Jan. 3, meeting in the Sublette County Weed & Pest Office.
“The next thing is new business and the first item is to talk about Cheney’s bill,” said Sublette WPLI co-chair Dan Smitherman, also on the Teton WPLI committee.
He explained that Cheney’s HR 4697 addresses the Shoal Creek, Palisades and High Lakes WSAs, all inventoried by the U.S. Forest Service.
It clarifies that Shoal Creek, Palisades and High Lakes WSAs are open to all prior recreational uses including horseback riding, snowmobiling, dirt biking, mountain biking and helicopter skiing if they remain WSAs under this bill; no new recreational access would be allowed.
“Unless somebody has questions about this bill from a WPLI perspective, it’s more about changes in definitions,” he said. “It has no impact if (Shoal, Palisades and High Lakes) are not WSAs. It does have impact if they stay as WSAs.”
When Palisades was inventoried as a WSA, High Mountain Helicopter Skiing of
days; the Forest Service added more and in its 2005 environmental impact statement, auJackson had a special-use permit for 60 user thorized 832 user days plus possibly another 500, Smitherman explained.
The Forest Service was sued and lost, then ordered by the court to return to its original number of 60.
“What the Cheney bill does is (it) overrides that court decision and bring the 2005 EIS back into play. I did the math – if they used all of them, they could have 200 days with four helicopters over Palisades,” he said.
Shoal Creek WSA is being tackled by the Sublette stakeholder committee with a Teton County subcommittee to work out recommendations for its release, designation or something in between.
Lake Mountain and Scab Creek WSAs, inventoried by the Bureau of Land Management, also have been in limbo without Congressional action one way or the other.
The Teton WPLI committee is reviewing the Palisades WSA, with very strong interest from motorized recreation groups, he said.
Park County’s committee reviews high Lakes WSA, on the Montana border. Not every county is participating in the WPLI, leaving some WSAs untended.
“My question is this,” said co-chair Coke Landers. “If this bill goes through before the Teton WPLI gets its recommendation together (for Palisades), what are the ramifications there? Does this trump their recommendations?”
Smitherman said the heli-skiing bill would take effect if the WSAs were left as such and not changed to other designations.
“I think a more important question is, does this demonstrate a lack of support for the WPLI by Miss Cheney,” asked committee member Mike Smith.
Smitherman said the heli-skiing bill is “a distraction; it shows disrespect or disregard for this process.”
Many await Cheney’s second draft wilderness bill that could require the Forest Service to remove its Wyoming WSAs – Shoal Creek, Palisades and High Lakes – from limbo by either designating them as full-fledged wildernesses or immediately releasing them to multiple-use management.
Again, this legislative proposal concerned the Sublette WPLI committee as it started getting down to the nitty-gritty of its Shoal Creek WSA assessment at the Jan. 3 meeting.
Smitherman described what he’d heard about the three-part bill Cheney will introduce in the near future: “This bill, if it comes out, in my opinion would have pretty significant impacts to the WPLI.”
The first section could give the Forest Service 90 days to make recommendations on Shoal Creek, Palisades and High Lakes and if they don’t act, they would be immediately released to multiple-use management.
The second and “probably the most troubling part,” he said, would make the BLM release WSAs not reviewed by WPLI and those not suitable as full wilderness could be released “without any look-see” in January 2019, he added. “The way it’s worded, even if WPLI makes a recommendation that hadn’t gotten through, it’s unclear if they could ever be considered for other designation.”
Smitherman asked the full group – Smith, Landers, Dave Bell, Mike Henn, Mike Crosson, Bill Lanning and Monte Skinner – if they wanted to write a letter like other WPLI committees and county commissioners have planned “or just wait and see what happens?”
“The way I read it, (Cheney) never even talked to the Teton County commissioners and they had no knowledge of it,” Skinner said.
Smitherman said as far as he knew Cheney never talked to any sportsmen, outdoor recreation or conservation groups that he has contact with.
“That is distressing,” said Bell. “That is distressing.”
Cheney did however work with “over 1,000 Wyoming residents” for support from Advocates for Multiple Use of Our Public Lands, the Wyoming Snowmobile Association, American Council of Snowmobile Associations, Teton Freedomriders and Dirtbikers Investing in Riding Trails,” her spokeswoman Maddy Weast told writer Angus Thuermer Jr. for his Jan. 5 WyoFile article.
Sublette WPLI liaison and county commissioner Joel Bousman echoed Teton County officials’ reactions to Cheney’s bill: “I do not know how Rep. Cheney’s bill came about and I have not spoken to either her or her staff about either bill. I don’t know about other commissioners.”
Bousman explained WSAs do “need to be resolved. There appeared to be a general consensus when we started the WPLI process, that collaborative efforts within the counties that would result in a recommendation to our Congressional delegation would be the best solution to address the WSA issue in Wyoming and would have the best chance of success in Congress.”
He said Cheney’s bills could “short-circuit the collaborative effort” but advised local committees to continue their efforts.
That was the tone taken by the Sublette WPLI committee last week.
“It seems kind of knee-jerk to write a letter against (the heli-skiing bill),” Bell said. “Do we talk to her? She hasn’t talked to us.”
Lanning advised, “Let’s focus on our task at hand, concentrate on what we need to get done and see what transpires.”
Once Cheney’s second bill is public, Smitherman said, “I think people ought to stand up and say this top-down approach is not very good with all the people spending their hard-earned time working from the bottom up. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Sublette WPLI meeting agendas, minutes, documents, agency reports, maps and overlays and working papers can be found at www.sublettewpli.org. Comments about Shoal Creek, Scab Creek and Lake Mountain WSAs can be submitted on the website.