The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative that Fremont County participated in several years ago has progressed to the halls of Congress, state legislators heard this month.
The initiative attempts to address the decades-long designation of 577,000 acres of land in Wyoming as Wilderness Study Areas, Wyoming County Commissioners Association executive director Jerimiah Rieman said during a recent meeting of the legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resources Management Committee.
In 1991, the Bureau of Land Management determined that less than half of that land – about 240,000 acres – should actually be designated as wilderness, Rieman said, while the rest should be “released back to multiple-use management.”
But “only Congress has the ability to act on that particular issue,” Rieman said, and “unfortunately, they have done nothing during that timeframe.”
As a result, he said, all of the study areas in Wyoming “exist in limbo” and continue to be managed as wilderness areas.
Rieman said his predecessor developed the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, inviting county governments to “work collaboratively with the community” to make grassroots recommendations about Wilderness Study Areas in their jurisdictions.
Those recommendations were incorporated into the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative Act of 2021, which U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, introduced last year.
Rieman was invited to testify about the legislation last month during a hearing that he called a “critical step … to get this moving forward.”
“Without that hearing, we won’t be able to get any of that act into a legislative package,” he said.
The BLM offered testimony during the hearing too, Rieman said, and although the agency was “opposed to many provisions” in the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, they also expressed support for “other elements” of the plan – likely those that envision additional wilderness designations.
Those were the portions Wyoming Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, didn’t like.
“We don’t need any more wilderness area in this state,” said Winter, who represents a portion of Fremont County. “I think we have enough.”
Citing his experience with resource management, Winter said “there’s no way that we can adequately, properly manage the lands in our wilderness areas,” which currently receive “no management at all” and have gone “downhill in quality” as a result.
“I just have no use for any more wilderness,” he said. “I spent my career and my life basically in the wilderness area, and every time I go back in there, I get so discouraged. … So I’m against any more wilderness area.”
Rieman acknowledged that the plan does feature new wilderness designations – Fremont County, for example, recommended designating the Sweetwater Canyon Wilderness Study Area as wilderness as well as creating the Dubois Badlands Recreation Area and National Conservation Area, making Sweetwater Rocks a special management area, and consolidating the Lankin Dome, Split Rock, Savage Peak and Miller Springs Wilderness Study Areas, according to Rieman’s hearing testimony.
But the local group also recommended releasing the Cooper Mountain and Whiskey Mountain Wilderness Study Areas back to multiple-use management, and Rieman pointed out that, if the public lands initiative doesn’t move forward, those study areas – and all of the study areas in the state – will remain in place to be managed as wilderness.
He asked the committee to consider submitting a letter to Barrasso in support of the legislation, but a motion to that effect died for lack of a second.