Liz Cheney bill to remove restrictions on wilderness-like lands advances

Democrats, environmental groups line up in opposition

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Despite opposition from Democratic lawmakers, a bill that would remove protections and restrictions from hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness-like lands across Wyoming passed a House committee last week.

The legislation from U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. — named the “Restoring Local Input and Access to Public Lands Act” — made it through the House Natural Resource Committee on party lines: 19 Republicans on the committee backed the bill while 11 Democrats opposed it.

If the bill passes Congress and becomes law, it would release around 400,000 acres of wilderness study areas in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties to general federal management. Park County commissioners are hoping that the bill will be amended to also release the local McCullough Peaks and High Lakes wilderness study areas to less restrictive management.

Commonly known by their acronym of WSAs, they’re places that federal land managers have identified as potentially being suitable to be designated and protected as wilderness. WSAs generally sit in limbo, enjoying wilderness-like protections, until Congress takes action.

Cheney called the committee vote “a crucial step towards finally bringing resolution to this long-standing issue” in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties.

“For over 40 years, federal land in Wyoming has languished in WSA status,” she said in a statement after the vote. “Recreation, ranching, and other economic activities have been negatively impacted by the decades-old WSA designation, which prevents access, locks up land and resources, restricts grazing rights, and hinders good rangeland and resource management.”

Another provision of H.R. 6939 would eliminate designations known as “lands with wilderness characteristics.” That label has been applied to millions of acres of federal lands across Wyoming, including some 476,000 acres in the Big Horn Basin. While those lands are not being managed any differently, Park County commissioners have lobbied hard to have those designations removed, saying the label could hinder oil and gas development on those parcels.

Cheney’s legislation is backed by the Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater county commissions and organizations representing stockgrowers, the minerals industry and motorized recreationists, but it also has critics.

Calling it “the largest rollback of public land protection in Wyoming history,” the Wyoming Wilderness Association is seeking to gather 5,000 signatures opposing the bill by Dec. 1.

“This threat to our remaining wild places needs to be stopped,” association executive director Khale Century Reno wrote in an email alert.

Barry Reiswig, a Cody resident and chairman of the Wyoming Back Country Horsemen, recently penned an open letter to Cheney in which he wrote that H.R. 6939 should be sent “to the ash heap where all bad bills should go to die.”

“This so-called ‘local input’ bill is nothing of the sort, but instead plays to the fat cats, billionaires and big corporations from out of state,” Reiswig said.

During last week’s committee meeting in the House, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, said the bill would “set a dangerous precedent throughout the country” by rolling back protections for nearly 800,000 acres of public land.

Legislation that releases wilderness study areas to general management “typically aims to strike a balance — by identifying areas that deserve permanent protection and releasing areas that are better suited for multi-use management,” Grijalva said. “... Unfortunately, this bill ignores that formula and targets entire WSAs for replacement without any consideration for the conditions on the ground or the actual quality and character of the land.”

He also called the “restoring local input and access” title misleading, noting that the Sweetwater County Commission chose to support a release of their WSAs on a split 3-2 vote.

Grijalva said the committee should slow down and hold a hearing with public input, “not simply peel back protections because it is easy and we don’t want to do the work necessary to develop a consensus-based bill.”

Cheney, however, disputed her colleague’s characterization.

“I think this legislation strikes a very careful and important balance and reflects, again, requests from the county commissioners in each of these counties,” she said.

House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Rob Bishop — a Republican representative from Utah who backed Cheney’s bill — suggested Congress should change federal land policy in a way that would encourage people to reach a consensus.

“I have found that it is very difficult to get people to compromise when there is absolutely no incentive to actually compromise,” Bishop said. “When the fallback position will always be the status quo, there will always be interest groups that will drag their feet and refuse to try and come up to the table to actually come up with a final solution.”

Most of Wyoming’s county commissions have created committees of local residents representing diverse interests — ranging from environmentalists to oil and gas developers — and asked them to try reaching a consensus on what should be done with the state’s WSAs. Results of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative have been mixed so far.

Meanwhile, the Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater county commissions declined to participate in the initiative and instead worked with Rep. Cheney on the “Restoring Local Input and Access to Public Lands Act.”

Park County sought to reach a consensus by participating in the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, but the local committee failed to unanimously agree on a proposal for the McCullough Peaks WSA (located between Powell and Cody) and the High Lakes WSA in the Beartooth Mountains. Commissioners then made their own recommendations.

Under the commission’s proposal, none of the 40,400 acres in the two WSAs would be converted into wilderness. Commissioners indicated they want to maintain the existing recreation opportunities in those areas, with a chance for additional trails in the McCullough Peaks. They also favored restricting any oil and gas development in the peaks by prohibiting any equipment from being installed on the surface in that area.

Park County commissioners want their recommendations included in Cheney’s bill, but issues with some of the legal language has kept the county’s recommendations out of the legislation so far, said Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf.

”It’s still our intention and still their [Cheney staffers’] intention that it’s going to be added at some point in the near future,” Grosskopf said.

If Democratic members of the House remain opposed to Cheney’s “Restoring Local Input and Access to Public Lands Act,” her window to get the bill through Congress could close soon: Democrats are set to take over the House next year after seizing dozens of seats in this month’s midterm elections.

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