Fate of Wyoming wilderness study areas up in air | TSLN.com

Fate of Wyoming wilderness study areas up in air

Angus M. Thuermer Jr

The Bureau of Land Management oversees the Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area south of Rawlins. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association wants to resolve the fate of wilderness study areas and will launch a statewide reclassification effort that could take more than three years to complete. Photo courtesy BLM

The state's county commissioners plan to give Congress a Wyoming blueprint on whether more than 750,000 acres of roadless federal wilderness study areas should be preserved or reclassified, possibly for development.

Commissioners are focused on making "long-term, locally driven decisions" about Wyoming's 45 federal wilderness study areas, the director of the state commissioners' association said. "We are hopeful that we can decide for ourselves in Wyoming how best to treat these areas," Pete Obermueller told U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo) and six other Republican House members Oct. 26.

Obermueller is director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, which will launch the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative in coming weeks, hoping to help resolve the wilderness study areas' status. The effort would take at least three years and would consider the spectrum of views, Obermueller said in an interview.

Obermueller's efforts to work within the system contrasts with action by other western states that seek to seize federal property. Nevertheless, Wyoming pushes back against federal rules and regulations with significant effort along a spectrum of fronts. Obermueller and the commissioners' agenda illustrates how Wyoming uses the tools at hand.

“We are hopeful that we can decide for ourselves in Wyoming how best to treat these areas.” Pete Obermueller, director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association

"We've spent an enormous [amount of] time in Wyoming making full use of our authority we are already granted," he said. "We put everything we can into being effective in that effort."

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His comments followed an appearance in front of Lummis and an ad-hoc assembly of Republican representatives called the Federal Land Action Group. While group member Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) clearly seeks land-transfer legislation, Obermueller said he's pursuing a different strategy. "What you get out of that [effort to seize federal land] is disruptive activities," Obermueller said in an interview. Instead, Wyoming county commissioners want to influence federal action in "meaningful but pragmatic ways."

Take action on wilderness study areas

Wyoming's 758,044 acres of roadless wilderness study areas are managed to preserve their wilderness characteristics. That means they're generally off-limits to multiple use, extractive industries, and roadbuilding. Some 577,504 acres are BLM study areas; another 180,540 belong to national forests.

Obermueller would not reveal too many details regarding the wilderness initiative before its rollout — whether wild and scenic rivers might be considered, for example. "There will be more meat on the bones when we launch it, which I hope is in the next couple of weeks," he said. Any grassroots Wyoming plan must acknowledge it deals with values held nationwide, one conservationist warned.

"Most bills, to be successful, have to have conservation components, and also components that reflect what the local community is looking for," said Stephanie Kessler, director of external relations with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "It's not just ideological local communities saying 'Here's what we think should happen.'"

A Wyoming blueprint must pass muster at the national level where environmental interests might be stronger than in Wyoming communities. "That's why it's a whole 'nother game when you get to Congress," Kessler said. "We have been saying to county commissioners and the governor's office that it is better to start small and be successful and build from that success."

While the wilderness study issue can be resolved, trying to address all study areas in Wyoming in one effort could be overwhelming, she said. "We think trying to put too much in one bill would create too many roadblocks," Kessler said. "We don't support an all-Wyoming bill."

Wyoming County Commissioners Association assembled a map of BLM Wilderness Study Areas. It does not include three study areas in national forests in the northwest. Resolving the fate of all the study areas is one of the goals of the commissioners as it articulates its vision for federal property in the state.

Obermueller agrees that a grassroots state plan must be collaborative to gain traction at the national level. "The only way a locally derived bill can fend off attacks from national [groups] from either side is by being inclusive or collaborative at the start," he said. However, "Wyoming has an advantage in reaching compromises that other states lack," he told Lummis and her cohorts. That's because Congress exempted Wyoming from the Antiquities Act in the bill to expand Grand Teton National Park in 1950. The Antiquities Act gives the president authority to create national monuments, a trump card that can be used in environmental negotiations.

"I am convinced that we in Wyoming are freer to undergo locally supported efforts like the [Wyoming Public Lands Initiative] without the sword of monument designations hanging over our heads," he told the U.S. representatives. "Quite simply, we in Wyoming begin with a stronger negotiating position than our counterparts in other states. As a result, those who support more restrictive land designations like wilderness have a greater incentive to collaborate. Every county in the West should be in the same position as we are."

Wyoming wants to manage federal parcels

If Wyoming isn't bent on seizing the federal estate, it wouldn't mind running it instead. Legislators in Cheyenne have commissioned a study of how Wyoming might manage federal lands. Obermueller wants some test projects, he told the federal lawmakers.

"This is not a transfer of ownership, or a way for the federal agencies to get out of their funding obligations," he told the congressional group. "Rather it is an attempt to recognize where the specific expertise of state and local officials could improve the management of certain areas – from recreation to agriculture and wildlife management to oil and gas permitting and inspections – for the benefit of all public lands users."

Obermueller's quest is based on the belief that Washington D.C. frequently can't do the job as well as Wyoming. "After all," he told the Republican forum, "… the facts show that often states and local governments are better managers of the resources we care so deeply about in the West."

If Wyoming is to manage federal property, it should do so with federal funds, he said. "The types of solutions we are contemplating under the pilot project idea will need resources to complete and adequately manage," he told Lummis' group. "As you work to reauthorize [the Land and Water Conservation Fund,] we urge you to resist calls to do so with no changes and instead craft a program like that suggested by the National Governors Association to focus a much greater share toward states' programs."

Using existing authority to the max

At the most fundamental level, Wyoming's county commissioners must exercise their existing muscle and they need training and support to do that, Obermueller said. Engaging with the federal government can often be "never-ending, and sometimes soul-crushing," he told Lummis' group.

Yet federal agencies wade into territory where they have little understanding compared to county commissioners, he said. In Sublette County, for example, when the BLM was renewing grazing leases, the county thought the feds were clueless about what made the community tick. County Commissioner Joel Bousman said the agency came to a meeting with an "inadequate description" of what constituted Sublette's lifeblood.

"The counties were not aware of their opportunity to have input into these documents," Bousman said. "BLM has very little socio-economic expertise. They had only like four people in the U.S. that did that sort of work."

Bousman remembers federal officials looking at the cost of grazing permits as an indicator of the industry's value. The logic he heard was that if permits didn't cost much, the grazing industry must also be relatively valueless. That view was myopic, Bousman said. "We decided to look for some expertise."

Sublette County used Wyoming's Federal Natural Resource Policy Account to commission studies in 2008 and 2009 that highlighted the importance of agriculture, among other industries. "That [agriculture] was one of the things that was missing from the BLM analysis," Bousman said.

Kessler, who was a county commissioner in Fremont County, agrees that Obermueller's briefings that she attended were worthwhile. "I thought it was a very good training opportunity," she said. "I think the association is trying to provide the tools to individual commissioners to be involved."

Wyoming counties have the opportunity to be cooperating partners with federal agencies, Obermueller said. That status does not give the state or local communities veto power. But it does require the federal government to hew to state and local policies and programs, or explain why a different course is required.

Kessler objects to some aspects of that arrangement, especially when federal agencies hold their cooperator sessions in private. "Meetings are closed to the public and that does not help to serve the need for transparency and openness," she said.

Once a local government does become engaged, it is defeating when a resulting plan is shot down as the result of a lawsuit. Consequently, Obermueller also wants some assurances that counties' hard work will see fruit.

"Congress should help to minimize incentives for litigation that too easily overturns the hard work of planning, and shift decision-making out of the public realm and into the private confines of a courtroom," he told Lummis' group. "It is difficult enough to convince commissioners to remain engaged on these issues … but if they know that all of their work and even compromises are jeopardized by litigious organizations masquerading as environmental stewards, it becomes impossible."

Wyoming also uses laws and lawsuits

If Wyoming wants to curtail others' legal challenges to land-use decisions, Gov. Matt Mead hasn't been shy about going to court himself. Claiming "overreach" by Washington D.C., Wyoming has challenged rules by the Environmental Protection Agency, the BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service.

Wyoming solons, too, have passed laws protecting economic interests against environmental restoration efforts. One law that would keep the Bridger-Teton National Forest from reducing domestic sheep grazing permits by removing wild bighorn sheep from the Wyoming Range if grazing is cut. State bureaucrats, too, have promulgated regulations to contain federal environmental protection efforts, like the recent Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality effort to reclassify miles of waterways to allow up to five times more E. coli bacteria than is currently permitted. That effort extended into wilderness areas where the U.S. Forest Service said such relaxed standards are unacceptable.

Citizens themselves have sued environmental activists to check their efforts. Ranchers filed legal action against Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that seeks changes to grazing on public lands. Some interpret a new Wyoming law governing the collection of environmental data as extending onto public federal property.

But Wyoming officials also have collaborated with federal representatives. Most notable is the state's Sage Grouse Implementation Team that oversees the sage grouse core-area strategy. Wyoming's conservation plan made a significant contribution to the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the grouse did not need protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wyoming also has adopted fracking standards and some oil- and gas-field emission rules.

Despite its success, Wyoming is not resting. Mead this week takes on the Endangered Species Act. As chairman of the Western Governors' Association, he is launching an effort in Cody Thursday that seeks to overhaul the environmental law that can lead to sweeping land-use restrictions.

Mead's effort makes some assumptions conservationists might not agree with. "Experts acknowledge that, after 42 years, changes to the ESA are warranted," western governors said in announcing the gathering. One challenge facing the governors, and those like Obermueller who would take collaborative steps to influence federal decisions, is convincing conservationists they are not hatching a grander scheme.

"Proposed amendments to the [Endangered Species] Act are frequently opposed on the basis that any change represents the first step in its dismantlement," the governors' association said in outlining Mead's initiative. "If there is any hope of improving the Act's effectiveness, this narrative must change."

Engaging the federal government is more than a right, Obermueller said. "For those of us who live and work out here, I think we have an obligation to be part of the decision-making process in the best way we know how," he said. "I will spend every ounce of energy I have to help my commissioners do that in the most effective way possible."

–Reprinted with permission from Wyofile

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