For 40 years, dozens of wilderness study areas, or WSAs, have been stuck in limbo, waiting for Congress to decide whether they should be given official wilderness status or released for other uses. So, three years ago, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association formed the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, collaborating with local stakeholders to answer that question.
But now the Wyoming Wilderness Society’s Dan Smitherman said the project in is peril because Representative Liz Cheney has introduced one bill that expands recreational use in three WSAs in northwest Wyoming and has proposed another to remove special protections on 59 percent of the WSAs. That bill has not moved forward so far.
“Neither of the bills were discussed with any of the county commissioners or any of the committees or any of the [non-governmental organizations] in advance,” said Smitherman. “So it was a total surprise.”
Smitherman said the Wilderness Society recently wrote a letter to the County Commissioners Association, calling on them to publicly defend the initiative against what they call Cheney’s “top-down approach.”
“You know, Wyoming has a very solid track record of solving Wyoming problems from the ground up, and this is another top-down solution. Exactly what Ms. Cheney complained about when she was running for Congress. Federal overreach,” Smitherman said.
County committees working on the initiative have also publicly expressed frustration, including leaders from Fremont and Park Counties.
But the Wyoming County Commissioners Association’s executive director Pete Obermueller said the public lands initiative is in perfect working order.
“I don’t agree that the WPLI need to be defended,” said Obermueller. “All the committees and all the participating counties are still working. We’re at the point in those discussions where people are rolling up their sleeves and really putting actual recommendations on the table, and that causes debate and tension and worry. And some excitement.”
Obermueller said collaborations are hard but this one is still on target. He feels Cheney has been supportive.
“She has said this publicly many times that she is more than willing to hear what the advisory groups and the counties have to say,” he said. “And we’ll make decisions about moving forward after that.”
Obermueller said the plan is to introduce legislation resolving the status of a few of the areas by the end of the year. If passed, wilderness protections would either be lifted or granted permanently.