|Washakie Wilderness Area, Norton Point|
The story begins with the Wilderness Act of 1964 that created the National Wilderness Preservation Service (NWPS) and gave Congress the authority to designate lands from the National Park Service and the National Forest Service as “Wilderness Areas.” Once designated, the federal government restricts most forms of human development including logging, mining, mechanized vehicles (including mountain bikes) and road maintenance.
|Wyoming's 15 Wilderness Areas|
Under the Wilderness Act, Congress designated 15 wilderness areas in Wyoming totaling 3,111,975 acres of land. These large tracts of land offer some of the best backpacking, horse packing and snowshoeing in the United States.
There is no better way to experience the rugged beauty of Wyoming than to hike a couple of days into these regions far away from the crowds and the sound of human mechanization. I know because as a young man just out of high school, I fell in love with Wyoming in the Washakie Wilderness Area just out of Dubois.
There is, however, a price to pay for the privilege of walking in undisturbed wilderness.
First, the ability to experience their enchantment is limited to those who are young enough and fit enough to hike rugged trails and camp in primitive conditions. Without vehicle access, large numbers of Wyoming citizens, and an even larger percentage of Americans will never have the joy of seeing one of these preserves.
Second, lands that once contributed to the local economy through multiple uses are now restricted to the single use of hiking. The people who once made a living through sustainable logging, or mining needed to find work elsewhere. As they were pushed off the land, counties lost revenue in the form of taxes.
Third, by restricting the use of mechanized equipment, trails fall into disrepair making even hiking and horseback riding difficult. With restrictions on power equipment comes the inability to clean out deadfalls and undergrowth. As a result, a wilderness area becomes a tinderbox ripe for the annual wildfire season. This not only threatens wildlife, but also property on the non-restricted lands surrounding them.
Despite these costs, wilderness areas are beautiful and important parts of Wyoming’s total land management. Most Wyomingites are willing to pay the price for a few carefully chosen tracts of land to be kept as nature preserves.
Because wilderness designations are always a balance between costs and benefits, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was careful to keep the authority for designating wilderness areas in the hands of our elected officials. Wilderness designations should be made judiciously and with the consent of the people who are paying the price.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 changed all that. This new law allowed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to suggest new areas for the NWPS but it also added a twist. The FLPMA instructed the Secretary of the Interior not only to identify possible areas for addition to the NWPS, but to designate these as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and to unilaterally apply wilderness area restrictions to these lands for up to 15-years while they were studied.
This Act represented an end run around the Wilderness Act of 1964. By giving temporary restrictive authority to the Secretary of Interior, it bypassed the requirement that wilderness areas be designated by elected representatives.
Thus, with the stroke of a pen the BLM designated over 700,000 acres of Wyoming land as WSAs. Suddenly, without input from our elected representatives, the people of Wyoming lost mining, logging—even mountain-biking—rights on these previously accessible BLM lands.
The story gets worse. In 1991 a new Secretary of the Interior released the long-awaited study of these WSAs along with a recommendation that Congress make about 41 percent of the 707,000-acre total into wilderness area and release the other 59 percent back to multiple use. But Congress never acted on this recommendation. Rather, 40 years after the unilateral restriction of three quarters of a million Wyoming acres, our elected officials have yet to weigh in.
In 2015 Pete Obermueller, director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, launched the most recent attempt to get these lands out of limbo. The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative hoped to capitalize on Wyoming’s unique situation under federal law in order to negotiate a resolution of the WSA problem.
That was almost three years ago, and the results are still projected for next spring. One of the problems that perennially discourages local attempts to negotiate with the federal government is that after countless hours of negotiation, heartbreaking compromises and herculean efforts the results of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative will inevitably end up in federal court.
We have seen this with every good-faith effort to come together on wolves, sage-grouse, grizzly bears and a thousand other matters. When Congress gives broad authorities to unelected bureaucracies, bad things happen.
They begin by “clarifying” what Congress left unanswered. This produces mountains of red-tape and confusing guidelines. Each new guideline in nuanced language will become an invitation to some special-interest group to hijack the process of negotiation. Groups having no intention of compromising with anybody can cynically sit back and watch the process knowing that no matter what is decided, an army of lawyers can undo the deal and make the personal opinion of some unelected federal judge to be the only opinion that matters.
It’s no wonder that so many people are feeling disenfranchised and marginalized. The American ideal of self-governance offers the promise of good-hearted people dealing face to face to solve vexing and complex problems. It was designed to be both transparent to public scrutiny and responsive to the voting public. Its success depends entirely on elected people, not faceless appointees, writing the laws. For this reason, three Wyoming counties have decided to break out of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative and go to the root of the problem.
Let’s be absolutely clear. Nobody is challenging Congress’ creation of 15 wilderness areas in Wyoming. Rather, Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties are challenging the BLM’s authority to create an additional 42 wilderness areas without congressional action. These counties alone encompass over 54 percent of the lands that were unilaterally regulated by the federal government contrary to the 1964 Wilderness Act.
They have been convinced by 40 years of fruitless negotiation that unless Congress acts directly, the people of Wyoming will never be given the chance to work together. If special interests wield litigeous power to scuttle good-faith negotiations, only an act of Congress can enable good people to come together and resolve the problem.
Congresswoman Liz Cheney agrees with these three county commissions. On September 27, the “Restoring Local Input and Access to Public Lands Act” (H.R. 6939). This does not undermine local control of public lands but gives it back. Since local control and elected representation was taken away by a bad act of congress in 1976, only congress has the power to restore it once again.
Kudos to our lone representative in congress. Let’s help her succeed.