Land use group proposes study of off-roading on Wyoming’s Copper Mountain
Fremont County’s Public Lands Initiative advisory committee called for the BLM to study the possibility of a recreation area within a Wilderness Study Area on Copper Mountain.
The state is home to 44 designated Wilderness Study Areas covering more than 3 million acres. One of these is the Copper Mountain WSA, located on the southeast end of the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway. The BLM describes the land as being “dry and mountainous with scattered limber pine and juniper on rocky slopes.”
Copper Mountain became a WSA when the Wilderness Act of 1984 created the National Wilderness Preservation System, designating 9.1 million acres across the nation as wilderness areas “into a single system of administered lands for the use an enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and to provide for the protection and preservation of the wilderness character of these areas,” according to the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative.
The Act was intended to create temporary designations and required the secretary of agriculture to evaluate the areas to make recommendations to Congress for the ultimate designation within 10 years of the passage of the Wilderness Act, which never happened. The WPLI was formed in 2016 with the hope of wrapping up one state-wide legislative lands package to finally designate or release Wyoming’s 44 WSAs as wilderness, though county-led advisory meetings, headed by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. The county’s recommendations for the WSAs will go before the WCCA and then be sent directly to Congress to be voted on as one whole package.
As Fremont County’s Public Lands Initiative advisory committee began the process of collaborating with the public-lands stakeholders in the area, it was suggested that, because the Copper Mountain WSA coincided with a highway and Boysen State Park, it could be a good spot to establish an off-road vehicle recreation area. Later, a rock-crawling group based out of Cheyenne attended an advisory meeting and encouraged the committee to add rock crawling to the recommendation according to Doug Thompson, FCPLI committee chair. When local ranchers heard of the idea, they began attending meetings to voice their opposition to motorized, off-road vehicle recreation.
“The committee amended its draft recommendations, they re-worded it to direct the BLM to study, not establish, but to study the possible motorized recreation system,” Thompson said. The decision took place during the May 14 meeting.
Prior to the decision being made, Fremont County ranchers including Tom Herbst, Kerry Cooper and others were opposed to the possibility of ORV use on Copper Mountain, in part because of the reputation of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy program that turned old railroad track that ran from Shoshone to Riverton into off-road trails for motorized recreation. Their concerns have not weakened.
“It became a mess, a real problem for us that are along the trail,” Herbst said. “The ORV users go to where, legally, they don’t have any access anymore so they just cut the fences and go tear things up.”
Cooper recalled an incident where he was moving cattle and ORV users from the trails kept turning the cattle back. When Cooper tried to talk to the offenders, he said his life was threatened.
“It’s not that I don’t think people have the right to play, but it’s just such a unique area that we’d like to see one space in Fremont County left alone,” Herbst said. “I call it our little Yellowstone because it’s been so untouched. There’s a lot of us that just want it left alone, even in the community from people who work and live in town.”
Herbst worries that the landscape could be damaged by a multitude of recreationalists. “I’ve lived here in Wyoming my whole life and I hope to help keep Wyoming the special and unique place that it is.”
If the BLM does proceed with the study, Thompson says the process would cover not just Copper Mountain but that they would look for areas throughout the entire Lander Field Office. They could contact land owners, ORV clubs and take testimonies and comments from the public and if it looked like there would be a suitable area, they would proceed with doing a full EPA analysis on the land.
“The other question that the BLM will try to assess in a study is, what would be the strategy for containing that type of use,” Thompson said. “If you’ve got ATVS, you’ve got rock crawlers, and you say, ‘OK, don’t go any farther than this,’ if you put a fence up, people cut fences and if you put a sign up, they drive over the sign. The Herbsts have a legitimate concern on how you keep that type of activity in one spot, how you manage it.”
The recommendation for Copper Mountain’s study is part of the full package for Fremont County that addresses each of the WSAs in the county. The package will be open for written public comment for thirty days, ending June 21 at 5 p.m. From there, it will go before the Fremont County and Natrona County board of commissioners around the middle of July. If approved by the board of county commissioners, the recommendation will be sent to the WCCA who, in conjunction with the office of the Governor, will review the state-wide recommendations for consistency and develop one legislative bill for introduction to the U.S. House and Senate.