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Misinformation steers the public’s outrage at the BLM’s plan for the Rock Springs area

A bird's eye view of the sparse Red Desert
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The BLM Rock Springs Field Office encompasses about 3.6 million acres that includes the Red Desert.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a long-awaited draft proposal of how they’ll manage 3.6 million acres of federal land in southwest Wyoming. Many Wyomingites are incredibly angry. But much of that anger on the draft is being fueled by distrust of the federal government and misinformation.

That sentiment was on display at a recent BLM public meeting in Big Piney.

“I’m saying throw the whole thing out – just throw the whole thing out,” said local Bob Dexter as he interrupted the BLM presentation. “It’s like which flavor of sandwich do you like? I don’t like any of them.”

A roomful of people unhappily watch a presentation.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
People listen to the BLM presentation in Big Piney.

About 75 people were at the meeting. There were a few cowboy hats, a red Trump ball cap, and lots of crossed arms with unhappy faces.

The BLM proposed four management options ranging from heavy on energy development to heavy on conservation. The latter being what the agency is recommending, meaning less development and more of an emphasis on wildlife and habitat. No one at the meeting, including Dexter, liked BLM’s recommended option: B.

“Who’s in favor of B? Is there anybody in this room that’s in favor of B?” Dexter shouted. Exasperated ‘no’s’ echoed throughout the room.

This is just the beginning of figuring out a plan for this area – once it’s chosen it will guide the management for the next 25 years or so of federal lands that include the Red Desert, which is largely untouched. It is home to the world’s largest elk herd, petroglyphs, sandstone towers and sand dunes.

Part of why people don’t like the proposal is because they think it will shut down hunting, hiking and current roads and two tracks. Which isn’t true.

Bureau of Land Management
Rock Springs Field Office boundary.

“That has a lot of folks riled up because they think that we're closing public access,” said Kimberlee Foster, the BLM Rock Springs Field Office manager.

Foster was the one who presented the four options at the Big Piney meeting. She sat in the corner of the meeting room, decompressing after the tense presentation.

“And there's not a single management action that actually closes public access,” she said. “None of them are a blanket closure for hunting or fishing, or dog walking or any of the other things that people like to do.”

Foster added that she thinks a lot of the public’s anger is being fueled by misunderstanding or misinformation. Notably, the BLM said a mistake was made in the draft that implied some roads would be closed, but that is not the case and the mistake will be corrected.

It seems like far-right Wyoming lawmakers are leading this angry mob-like mentality toward the BLM plan.

“Alright ladies and gentlemen, this is a town hall with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus,” said John Bear (R-Gillette)

The Wyoming Freedom Caucus has held a couple public meetings since the plans have come out, like this recent Facebook Live video, where Bear spoke about his worries.

“This is pretty egregious, this is going to take away the livelihood of hundreds of ranchers in the state of Wyoming,” Bear said.

But it’s not – at least to that extent. The draft plan would close .02 percent of the land to livestock grazing. The BLM said that much of that .02 percent is held by a grazing permittee that has historically chosen not to run cattle.

These overstatements about the plan and the federal government’s general push for conservation were echoed by other Freedom Caucus members in the state.

“This is probably the biggest disaster in the history of the United States,” Representative Bill Allemand (R-Midwest) said in the livestream. “Affecting more people than the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.”

Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The Livestock Grazing Management plan under the BLM’s preferred option. Everything in green would still be open to grazing.

In just this video 2,400 people tuned in. With comments like ‘all hunters in Wyoming need to understand this will close off public lands.’ Or saying the federal land belongs to Wyoming. Neither of which are true. Another comment even implied that people should prepare for an armed Cliven Bundy-like approach to the feds.

But not everyone sees the draft plan as ‘egregious’ – some environmental and hunting groups say it’s a great starting point – and that conservation in southwest Wyoming is needed.

“The richness of wildlife habitats there is just phenomenal. And we know that's important to Wyoming residents,” said Julia Stuble, Wyoming senior manager for the Wilderness Society.

She emphasized that the draft plan will still allow for things like hunting and hiking.

“So if there's a place that you fish and hunt and camp that you want to take your grandkids to, and have them experience the way you've experienced it, I would say there's a lot of this plan that would achieve that,” Stuble said.

The BLM folks are stressing to the public that this is a draft. They want meaningful public comment because it’ll shape the final plan.

TJ Franklin, natural resource specialist for the BLM Rock Springs Field Office, gave examples of comments that aren’t helpful, “I don't want Biden's plan. I vote for, ‘C’ or I vote for ‘A.’ It’'s not a voting booth necessarily,” Franklin said. “You can’t just say well, ‘Screw this plan I don’t like it.”

A vast field backs up to bluffs under a blue sky with fluffy white skies.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The Pine Mountain area, which is within the BLM’s Rock Springs Field Office.

Most recently, Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon has asked for the BLM to withdraw their draft and choose an option with more energy development, adding that the local economies depend on resource extraction. The BLM’s current recommended plan would close over half of the 3.6 million acres in the Rock Springs Field Office to oil and gas development.

Franklin said if you don’t like the plan, write to the BLM why and how it’ll affect you. Public comment will close November 16th, but, in the event of a government shutdown the deadline will be extended by however long the shutdown lasts. After considering all comments, the BLM will release a final plan next spring.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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