County commissioners place deadline on wilderness committee

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If local residents are going to reach a consensus on how best to manage a remote area of the Beartooth Mountains, they’re going to have to do it soon.

A committee of about a dozen people, representing interests ranging from environmental groups to off-road vehicle users, has been debating what to do with the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area for months.

On Tuesday, Park County commissioners gave the committee a March 30 deadline to come up with a recommendation for the future management of the 15,224-acre area.

“... and if not, we will act accordingly,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., has introduced a bill in Congress that would, among other things, protect snowmobiling in the High Lakes area. Cheney has said she drafted that part of the legislation in response to environmental groups who wrote a letter to Shoshone National Forest officials last year, challenging whether the current amount of snowmobiling violates the law that established the High Lakes WSA.

“I can certainly decide to back her legislation; I’ve got no problem with that,” Tilden said Tuesday. However, he and the rest of the commissioners decided they would rather give their Wyoming Public Lands Initiative Advisory Committee another month or so to make a recommendation about the High Lakes area before deciding what to do.

The chairman of Park County’s advisory committee, former county commissioner Bucky Hall, expressed some doubt about whether the group will ever be able to reach a consensus.

“I don’t have a strong feeling that we’re going to; we might,” Hall said. “We’re four months behind schedule, basically because of the conservation community, and I really don’t expect them to waver from their charge.”

The goal of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative is to bring together many different interest groups within each county and have them collaboratively craft a plan for their county’s wilderness study areas (WSAs). Those are places that have been identified as potential wilderness areas and Wyoming’s WSAs have been stuck in a kind of limbo for decades, waiting for Congress to decide what to do with the spots.

Through the counties’ public lands committees, the groups are supposed to be making recommendations for their local WSAs — whether that means creating some new wilderness areas, releasing acres to general management or crafting special designation that are somewhere in between.

Park County has two wilderness study areas: the High Lakes area in the Shoshone National Forest and the McCullough Peaks WSA, a 25,210-acre portion of the rugged peaks area that lies south of Powell and east of Cody.

The county’s advisory committee made a draft recommendation that 10,300 acres be turned into permanent wilderness with the other 15,000 acres be placed under more lenient management.

The efforts of the public lands initiative, started in late 2015, have taken on new urgency since December, when Cheney introduced her bill dealing with High Lakes and two other WSAs on U.S. Forest Service lands in Teton County. The bill caught Park County commissioners and committee members by surprise, as the freshman representative didn’t notify local officials in advance.

Cheney has since been in contact with commissioners and is working on a second piece of legislation that would potentially release the WSAs managed by the Bureau of Land Management, such as the McCullough Peaks.

“I think the [public lands initiative] process should play out before Rep. Cheney does her thing,” Commissioner Tim French said at Tuesday’s meeting. However, French said he’s also heard displeasure with the committee’s proposed compromise for the McCullough Peaks WSA including new wilderness.

“The people in the Powell area feel that … the activities up on High Lakes are going to be protected and their historic uses of dirt biking and everything else in a pile of mud [in the peaks] are going to be restricted with wilderness,” French said. “They’re telling me it’s an effort to appease the environmentalists so they can keep their things up on top of the mountain.”

The commissioner said he’d like Cheney to protect historic uses in the peaks as well.

Rep. Cheney has said she will incorporate counties’ wishes into her legislation, but she wants to get moving by early summer, while Republicans are still in control of Congress, said Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf, who spoke with Cheney on a conference call.

Advisory committee chairman Hall said it was possible that the bills will encourage the couple of environmental holdouts to agree on a recommendation for the High Lakes WSA.

“What I’ve been preaching to the committee all this time is you’d better be careful, because someday, something’s going to happen,” Hall said. “Now, someday [is here], and they’re going, ‘Oh Cheney’s bill will never pass.’ Well, you never know.”

The advisory committee’s next meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Grizzly Hall at the Park County Library in Cody.

Editor's note: This version corrects the size of the High Lakes WSA and clarifies that the committee's recommendation for the McCullough Peaks was a draft recommendation.

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