Commissioners call for no new wilderness in McCullough Peaks, High Lakes areas

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After a committee of local residents couldn’t agree on how the county’s two wilderness study areas should be managed, Park County commissioners decided to craft a plan of their own.

On Tuesday, commissioners unanimously called for federal legislation that could lead to more vehicle trails in the McCullough Peaks area while generally protecting the recreational activities that have been taking place there and at the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area.

Following two public meetings about the areas last month, “it was pretty overwhelmingly clear that the public in Park County did not want wilderness in the peaks or on High Lakes and that they wanted all the previous uses allowed,” said Commissioner Tim French.

The commission also called for there to be “no surface occupancy” in the McCullough Peaks study area. The restriction means that, while companies could extract minerals from underneath that part of the peaks, they would have to access the oil or gas by drilling horizontally from another location, as disturbances to the surface would be prohibited.

In listening to public comments and a county committee that studied the area, “it was very apparent to me … that everybody wanted to protect it,” Commissioner Joe Tilden said. “There was no question about that; it needs to be protected.”

Under the proposal being put forward by the commissioners, motorized and non-motorized travel in the McCullough Peaks WSA would be limited to current trails plus those that existed prior to the land becoming a study area in 1984 — plus the possibility of new trails that the Bureau of Land Management would evaluate on a case-by-case.

Commissioners Lee Livingston and Jake Fulkerson each expressed reservations about adding new trails before voting yes on the proposal.

Tilden agreed that, “I don’t want to see a whole bunch of brand new roads out there going this way and that way.” With the way the BLM review process works, a slew of new trails is “just not going to happen,” he said. “But I don’t want to close that door. I want to at least leave it open so there is maybe some opportunity [for more trails] in the future.”

Recreational activities that existed in 1984 would also be explicitly allowed in both the peaks, south of Powell, and in the High Lakes area, in the Beartooth Mountains. The changes would effectively convert the 25,200 acres in the peaks and the 15,200 acres in the High Lakes area from Wilderness Study Areas into less restricted special management areas, and generally bar federal land managers from tinkering with them.

“Here in the Big Horn Basin, we have lost so much over the last 20 years as far as additional restrictions, travel management, oil and gas, grazing, I mean, the list goes on and on and on and on,” Tilden said. “The community has pretty much told us how they want that managed and what they want it managed for.”

The commission’s proposal has no effect on its own, as it will take an act of Congress for the board’s wishes to become reality.

Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf expressed confidence that U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., will introduce legislation to back whatever the county proposes. Park County’s proposal would likely be combined with recommendations that other counties forward to Cheney.

Whether Cheney can get such a bill through the House of Representatives — and whether U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso could shepherd it through the Senate — is another question.

Cheney has made it a priority to resolve the status of Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas — places that have been identified as having wilderness-like characteristics. While awaiting Congressional action, activities are relatively restricted in WSAs, but they don’t receive as many protections as actual wilderness.

In an early April interview, Cheney said she sees a current opening to pass a bill.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of people that want to support this strongly or fight against it,” Cheney said of her efforts. “But I think my responsibility is to move as quickly as we can and to make sure that what I’m doing reflects what the counties want to have happen and not just delaying this forever and allowing these areas to stay in limbo.”

Environmental opposition

It appears almost certain that environmental groups will mobilize against Park County commissioners’ plan and any bill Cheney introduces.

Last month, the Wyoming Wilderness Association sent Cheney a petition with more than 120 signatures, demanding that she not introduce “anti-wilderness” legislation.

Meanwhile, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition urged its supporters to oppose a proposal for the McCullough Peaks and High Lakes areas that was more conservation-friendly than the one suggested by commissioners. Drafted by the Park County Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI) Advisory Committee, a panel appointed by the commissioners, the proposal most notably called for designating 10,000 acres of the McCullough Peaks as wilderness.

However, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition — which was represented on the committee by staffer Jenny DeSarro of Cody — was displeased with the overall proposal; it also accused county commissioners of rushing things to meet Cheney’s timeline.

“The proposal didn’t serve our conservation interests — there weren’t enough protections for the long-term naturalness and wildness of these lands,” DeSarro wrote in a message to supporters.

DeSarro and one other committee member, Karinthia Harrison of Powell, voted to block the committee’s proposal on the grounds that it didn’t offer enough for conservation.

“Everyone must have an interest met. Yes, that includes wilderness,” Harrison said at a public meeting in Powell last month.

Comments from local residents, submitted during a recent comment period, ran almost 3:1 in opposition to new wilderness, commissioners said.

One speaker at an April 25 forum at the Park County Fairgrounds, Christy Larsen of Powell, talked of how much she enjoys snowmobiling and riding her ATV on public lands; Larsen said she loves the land as much as a traditional conservationist.

“These mountains belong to all of us, not just a few special people who don’t want to be bothered by motor noise,” Larsen said. “And I’m disappointed, actually, at the elitist attitude of these people who don’t want to share their lands and don’t believe in respect and multiple use for all.”

“I am strongly opposed to adding any more wilderness area just for the simple fact that we need to be teaching our kids how to love the land, and wilderness is not the best way to do that,” Larsen added.

Process ‘hijacked’

At the forum, two other committee members expressed frustration with the environmental community’s approach to the process.

“I feel like the grassroots effort was hijacked by big organizations from outside our area that didn’t want to reach a compromise,” said Christine Bekes, who represented the general public. “And that was really disappointing as a committee member who was working hard to compromise.”

For example, Bekes said she’d gone along with the proposed 10,000 acres of wilderness in the peaks, despite believing that an area from which you can see a highway “is not wilderness.”

Former Park County Commissioner Bucky Hall, who chaired the committee, said WPLI panels across the state had been “slowed down and kind of barricaded by groups that call themselves the conservation community.” Hall said people on the committee who work for conservation groups “routinely aren’t allowed to make decisions” on their own, unlike other committee members.

In recent letters and columns submitted to the Powell Tribune and the Cody Enterprise, several environmentally oriented individuals and groups have been sharply critical of the commissioners’ handling of the WPLI. Committee member Hap Ridgway, who represented the general public, faulted commissioners for prohibiting the group from discussing any lands outside the wilderness study areas as it tried to reach a deal.

Ridgway also said the commissioners have shown an “anti-conservation” sentiment that poses risks to public lands.

His piece incensed commissioners, who spent more than 10 minutes at their May 1 meeting discussing how they wanted to respond.

“The thing that really upset me … is he accused us of being rape and plunder people, anti-conservation, and we, as sportsmen, we put more on the ground for conservation and wildlife management in this state than they ever thought about doing,” Commissioner Tilden said.

Commission splits with WPLI

The WPLI process was intended to get away from the usual conflict between different public lands groups.

One of the main aims is to come up with management plans for the Wilderness Study Areas that are broadly supported by stakeholders across the ideological spectrum.

In May 2016, Park County commissioners chose 20 locals to represent agriculture, energy, conservation, non-motorized recreation, motorized recreation, sportsmen and the general public. But at the time, some commissioners expressed skepticism about whether consensus would ever be reached.

By choosing to draft their own wilderness study area proposal on Tuesday, the commission effectively broke with the WPLI process, at least temporarily.

Some WPLI committees are still trying to reach consensus about their county’s wilderness study areas; other counties who haven’t found agreement may work with the Wyoming County Commissioners Association on a separate bill later this year.

Park County commissioners decided to work directly and immediately with Cheney, with the possibility of joining back up with the association on a bill if this effort fails.

“I think we have an opportunity right now,” Chairman Grosskopf said. “Liz [Cheney] is ready. … She’s ready to move forward, doing something.”

Commissioners spent a little less than an hour crafting their proposals for the McCullough Peaks and High Lakes WSAs.

“Two years reduced to that 30 minutes, huh?” mused Commissioner Fulkerson.

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