If you were to query Wyomingites about the things they dislike about the federal government, you’d likely hear — over and over — a complaint that Washington, D.C., takes a “top-down” approach. It’s another way of saying that we don’t like it when politicians or bureaucrats thousands of miles away come up with ways to affect our area without involving us first. The objections to edicts from Washington are so commonplace here that you might call it a Wyoming mantra.
That’s why we’re baffled that U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney recently employed a top-down approach in introducing a bill that would change the management of 14,700 acres of federally owned land in Park County.
Cheney’s bill, H.R. 4697, would protect mechanized recreation in the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area, which lies within the Beartooth Mountains inside the Shoshone National Forest.
Cheney says the bill — which would also apply to two wilderness study areas in Teton County — is meant to clarify language in the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984 “so existing outdoor activities can continue.” She said that Congress’ original intent for the three U.S. Forest Service-managed study areas has been misinterpreted.
On the face of it, the concept sounds like something that a majority of local residents might support.
But here’s the problem: Cheney apparently never took the time to actually ask local residents what they thought before presenting her bill to her colleagues in D.C.
For instance, Park County commissioners — who are involved in nearly every debate about local public lands — had no idea that Cheney’s proposal was coming down the pike.
“It would probably be a smart thing to come out to Park County ... and explain where she’s coming from versus broadsiding us like that,” offered Commissioner Tim French.
What’s particularly frustrating is that Cheney did come to Park County just 11 days before she introduced H.R. 4697. However, in a Dec. 9 talk at the Holiday Inn in Cody that covered topics ranging from the FBI to federal water regulations to gun control, the freshman lawmaker didn’t say a word about the legislation she was drafting to change the management of a local parcel of land.
Assuming that Cheney believes H.R. 4697 is something that locals want, why not give us a heads up?
The bill’s timing is also odd because, while Cheney was developing her own proposal for the High Lakes area, a group of local volunteers has been working collaboratively to do that same thing in a more comprehensive way.
Park County commissioners appointed a mix of Powell, Cody and Meeteetse area residents to an advisory committee back in 2016, asking them to try reaching a consensus on how the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area and the McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area southwest of Powell should be managed.
The committee is a part of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, an effort started a couple years ago by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. The aim is to come up with broadly supported plans for managing the state’s wilderness study areas — finding common ground around the bitter divides that often mark debates over public lands.
Wilderness study areas are spots that are being preserved in their generally natural state, with the thought that Congress will eventually decide whether to officially turn the areas into wilderness or release them to other land uses. In the case of the High Lakes area and others, however, they’ve been simply stuck in limbo as study areas for decades.
We understand why Rep. Cheney and others are frustrated about the lack of progress or are skeptical about what the public lands initiative might propose. But Park County’s committee could be fairly close to crafting a proposal for the High Lakes and McCullough Peaks study areas and we hope that Cheney will consider their work. Her office says she supports the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative and that H.R. 4697 “will not undermine the ongoing process.” A good way for Rep. Cheney to show her support would be to wait and see Park County’s proposal before pressing forward with her own plan.
As Commissioner Loren Grosskopf put it, “it’s a bitter pill when Washington decides, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”