Committee proposes 10,000 acres of wilderness in McCullough Peaks

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After a final two hours of debate, the Park County Wyoming Public Lands Initiative advisory committee finished a draft proposal identifying the borders of a possible wilderness area in the McCullough Peaks. The group is working to reorganize the current wilderness study area (WSA) into two sections — preserved wilderness and a special management area — in a proposal that could ultimately become law.

While board member Karinthia Harrison fought hard for a large swath of wilderness without access roads, the group finally found a consensus. Under the group’s tentative recommendation — which will be subject to the approval of Park County commissioners, Congress and others — around 10,000 acres of the study area in the peaks would be turned into permanent wilderness while another 15,000 acres would become a less restricted special management area.

In the final negotiations to reach a consensus, the size of the wilderness area was increased, giving up the Division Ridge mountain bike trail and turning an access double-track road, on the southeastern side of the WSA, into an administrative access road. That was in exchange for a primitively maintained, buffered or cherry stemmed, primitive road that already exists, crossing the northern section of the wilderness.

“It is one of the last areas in Park County that we can have a true wilderness,” Harrison said.

That part of the McCullough Peaks is popular with some — mostly for horseback trips, all-terrain vehicles, hikers and mountain bikers — but use has been very limited in the past.

“There’s not much use of any kind that we’ve seen or heard of,” committee member and community cycling advocate John Gallagher said.

Roads are pot-holed and rocky through the area. Most are double-track and only passable by specialized four-wheel-drive vehicles or off-road motorcycles and bicycles. When wet, the roads and trails become slicker than snot.

Gallagher is pushing for a new mountain bike trail in the special management area. The trail would be on the north part of the WSA, close to Powell.

“If you don’t create a trail, people will create their own,” Gallagher said.

Christine Bekes, board member and Powell resident, is all for recreation close to Powell.

“From Powell’s perspective, it really is our front country for recreation. Right now I can be on my mountain bike and be on a trail in 10 minutes,” she said.

One area resident voiced concerns about the proposal during a public comment period at the end of the meeting.

“We’re giving up something I’ve had all my life,” said Tate McCoy of Powell.

McCoy and his family make several trips across the peaks to Cody via ATVs yearly, he said.

“I don’t understand why we’re going to close existing roads in the name of protecting something that’s already been corrupted. I don’t want to lose what I already have,” McCoy said.

No mechanized travel — including bicycles — would be allowed in the part of the peaks designated as wilderness.

Shaleas Harrison, a staffer with the Wyoming Wilderness Association in Laramie and Karinthia Harrison’s sister, came to support keeping the area as wild as possible.

“You are negotiating the fates of these two wilderness [areas],” Shaleas Harrison said. “When you try to make decisions for the future, knowing that it’s the last available space for wilderness solitude, that means something.”

A consensus on the draft proposal was achieved several months late, committee chairman Bucky Hall said. During several long months, committee members fought for their interests. The self-imposed deadline was set at the beginning of the process. Frustration during the extensive debate — centered mostly on the size and treatment of the wilderness area in the peaks — lasted three months longer than expected and led to some board attrition, Hall said.

“If the law goes through, it will take an act of Congress,” said Hall, a former county commissioner. “The BLM does periodically change how they manage property, depending on who’s in the White House.”

The draft version of the proposed borders will now be posted online for public comment while the committee turns its attention to the High Lakes wilderness study area for similar treatment. The roughly 14,700 acre area is located in the Beartooth Mountains inside the Shoshone National Forest.

The two WSAs were identified decades ago and have gone without action since.

After public comment and possible changes made after the process, the advisory committee will send their recommendations to the Park County Commissioners. Once there, the commissioners can accept the recommendations, make some changes or come up with their own plan and then forward the results to the Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA).

The WCCA, representing eight counties that have joined in the effort, will then send legislation to Congress and hope to have their bill made into law. The process could take another two years, if ever. Participating counties are Washakie, Teton, Sublette, Johnson, Hot Springs, Fremont, Carbon, Campbell and Park. The WCCA hopes to have all requests in by the beginning of the year, Hall said.

“If we refuse to move backwards from now on, we can meet the timeline,” committee member JD Radakovich said.

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