Public comments stir up heated discussion
Sparks flew last week as a Park County committee considered dozens of public comments on a draft proposal for the future management of a portion of the McCullough Peaks.
Wyoming Public Lands Initiative committee members Karinthia Harrison and Jenny DeSarro — who have fought to have the entire McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area (WSA) designated as an intact wilderness area — attempted to use opinions expressed in several of the public comments to renegotiate the boundaries that were proposed in the draft plan months ago. That draft had been hammered out by the committee through a more than year-long debate about the study area, which is just one part of the broader McCullough Peaks area.
In the proposal, the McCullough Peaks WSA would be divided between wilderness and a Special Management Area to be used by mechanized recreational users, including motorcycles, ATVs and mountain bikes.
The committee is a group of community volunteers representing multi-faceted interests. DeSarro represents conservation interests and Harrison has a seat representing the general public. The two have been looking for every opportunity to maximize the wilderness boundaries. The boundaries in the draft proposal set aside 10,000 acres of the roughly 25,000-acre WSA as wilderness.
Fifty-five comments were received on the draft, with a majority voicing support for wilderness. Others voiced opposition to any new wilderness.
“There were a lot of comments from people wanting to keep [the WSA] as an intact wilderness,” Harrison said. “This is an opportunity for those interests to be met.”
Harrison suggested adding land on the west side of the McCullough Peaks (land that’s not included in the WSA) into the proposal for mechanized recreation and increasing the boundaries of the wilderness. The potential addition of non-WSA land was met with immediate disapproval from several of the committee members.
“Going outside of the WSA is obviously a waste of all of our time because the commissioners aren’t going to support it,” said Dustin Rosencranse, who represents motorized recreation.
Several Park County commissioners, who oversee the advisory committee, have repeatedly discouraged the panel from going outside the WSA boundaries.
Committee chairman Bucky Hall said two commissioners said they wouldn’t consider lands outside the WSA and two would consider anything brought to them. The commissioners can accept the proposal or make changes as they see fit at the end of the advisory committee process. DeSarro argued commissioners would look at adding in non-WSA land — and that changing the boundaries was best.
“We can still put forward [a proposal] that includes [land] outside [the WSA] if it seems reasonable to the committee and the public,” DeSarro said. “There were a significant amount of comments pushing for wilderness. It feels like to those people that something is being taken away from them.”
John Gallagher, representing non-motorized recreation, argued the comments were evenly split between those wanting more wilderness and those wanting less. And he claimed many of the comments made in favor of more wilderness were solicited.
“A fair amount of the comments had a cut and paste character, and I know where they came from,” Gallagher said.
The Wilderness Society sent out emails urging members to make comment, he said.
Chairman Hall said about a third of all comments made in favor of an expanded wilderness came from other counties in the state — primarily from the Sheridan area.
“Some of the emails sent out requesting comment were not really fair to the proposal; they were quite one-sided. You have to take all of that into consideration when you read those comments,” Gallagher said. “Public comment is not a popularity contest. I don’t view this as a time to completely redo what we just did.”
Christine Bekes of Powell, representing the general public, attempted to keep the group on track, wanting to stick to discussion of public comment and not opening up the meeting to attempts to renegotiate boundaries.
“For us to start down a road of considering boundary changes, there wasn’t anything [in the comments] for me that showed a unique reason why we consider the proposal be scrapped. I didn’t hear anything new or different that wasn’t represented in [committee]. I’m very frustrated,” Bekes said. “It’s as if we’re going back four months in time.”
Several members agreed with her comment. DeSarro then threatened pulling support for the proposal.
“This is not going to meet our interests. Unless you’re willing to expand the conversation, it’s going to be very hard for conservation to come to the table and say we support [the proposal],” DeSarro said.
“To push those boundaries is absolutely justifiable. If it wasn’t for me screaming and yelling and clawing saying, ‘No, I want a hard W [wilderness],’ it wouldn’t exist right now,” Harrison said.
“Conservation is not willing to compromise on something they don’t want, but they expect the rest of us to do that,” Rosencranse rebutted.
At that point facilitator Tara Kuipers asked that the committee maintain a respectful tone. Hall tried to end renegotiation efforts by pointing out that the group is both creating new wilderness and still meeting the needs of those using the land for recreation.
“In the end, we are creating new wilderness. I think we’ve made reasonable headway on this. If everyone leaves a little mad, we had successful compromise,” Hall said.
The advisory committee will meet again in February and is currently seeking public comment on a draft proposal for the county’s other wilderness study area, the High Lakes WSA in the Beartooth Mountains. To make comments, information is available at www.parkcounty.us/commissioners/wpli.html.