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November 28, 2008 3:55 am

Counties call for protection of ranching

Written by Tribune Staff

Oppose wilderness designations

Protecting a Western way of life is one of the main priorities of the Big Horn Basin's County Commissions over the coming years.

“There is concern our Western culture is being destroyed or detrimentally changed,” they said, as part of 22 pages of remarks on government land use.

The Park, Big Horn, Washakie and Hot Springs County Commissions submitted comments to the Bureau of Land Management on Monday, outlining their visions of how federal land should be managed in the future.

The BLM is currently drafting a new Resource Management Plan for the entire Big Horn Basin — a process that will take several years. The plan will guide nearly every aspect of the Basin's 3.2 million acres of federal land over the next 15 to 20 years.

As part of a scoping process designed to determine concerns and issues, the BLM sought public comments up until Nov. 24.

The four county commissions commented together in remarks compiled by Ecosystem Research Group (ERG) — a Missoula, Mont. environmental consulting firm.

The Park County Commissioners listed grazing as their highest-priority issue, and the collective comments emphasize its importance in the Basin.

If grazing is reduced, “the highest value of these lands ... is to sell to developers and ‘hobby' ranchers,” they wrote. “With large ranches being subdivided into smaller tracts, many unintended consequences emerge. Our wildlife corridors and habitat are forever altered. We are witnessing urban sprawl creeping into these special places, and our landscapes and viewsheds are being chewed up by housing, roads, and rural businesses at alarming rates.”

By protecting ranches, the commissioners contend, open spaces will be protected.

“Ranchers and farmers can be great stewards of the land,” they said. “The benefits of keeping working landscapes from being subdivided and developed should be considered in the (plan).”

If the commissions have their way, none of the Basin's lands will be designated as wilderness. Wilderness areas are typically remote, untouched by development and largely roadless. A wilderness designation — which can only be made by Congress — usually bans all motorized travel from the area.

“Millions of acres in the west are designated as wilderness. We oppose designating any of the lands within the (planning area) as wilderness,” they wrote.

Currently, the BLM is studying 12 areas as potential wilderness sites. Restrictions are placed on those Wilderness Study Areas to keep them as potential wilderness candidates. The commissions ask that the study areas be returned to general management.

The county officials also lay out their support for oil and gas development in the comments, while calling for an increased emphasis on site reclamation.

Also, the commissions call for the BLM to study the safety of chemicals used in oil and gas exploration — something that environmental groups have called for as well.

“Recent articles regarding ... hydraulic fracturing have uncovered a series of contamination incidents that raise questions over the Environmental Protection Agency's stance that the process poses no risk to drinking water,” they wrote.

However, the comments stress the importance of not being too restrictive.

“Mitigation tools can be implemented, but they need to be reasonable, not used as tools to shut down this industry,” they wrote. “Oil and gas contributes a great deal to the socioeconomic stability of our communities and nation.”

The commissions say oil and gas development is at times underappreciated.

“Discussions and analyses regarding the negative impacts of oil and gas are often underscored while the benefits ... to the public and the BLM are not identified or ignored,” they said.

Opportunities for alternative energy sources, such as wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal power should be also considered, the commissioners said.

The comments note the special public interest in the Basin's wild horses. The BLM should examine all options in management, they said.

“As part of the wild horse management plan, the use of contraceptives should be continued, and adoption and slaughter of excess animals should be considered,” they wrote.

The commissions also ask the BLM to stop using helicopters for roundups, citing cost and the equine's well-being.

“Helicopter roundups negatively impact the wild horse program and public support,” they wrote.

Maintaining high water levels at Big Horn Lake is also a concern. The commissions say keeping the level high will benefit fisheries, recreation, hydropower production, weed control and also sediment and erosion control. They write that “the most effective (and the only cost-effective) way to drop out sediment where it causes the least damage is to maintain lake levels above 3,625 feet during spring runoff.”

For this coming spring, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Big Horn Lake, projects that levels will dip to 3,619 feet.

The lowest level at which it is safe to launch boats is 3,617 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Sarah Beckwith said her agency has no control over lake levels.

The commissions would also like the BLM to provide expected costs of the available management options for public consideration. They suggest creating a volunteer program for under-funded projects. The comments also addressed air quality, vegetation, tourism impacts, and other areas of concern.

Over the next couple months, the BLM will be reading and analyzing all of the comments received — comments from government, environmental groups, and concerned citizens. Those will be used to help come up with a plan that outlines the issues to be examined. The management plan is scheduled to be finalized in 2011.

(This version of the story corrects and clarifies information regarding Big Horn Lake)