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SHERIDAN — Though their debut and departure is marked on a calendar day, seasons seem to prefer to morph modestly, easing into and out of each other’s weather patterns each year with little regard to what day they are actually supposed to arrive.
In much the same way, the Wyoming Wilderness Association quietly transitioned this last fall.
Founder and Executive Director Liz Howell retired in October so she could pursue art and time in the wild outdoors she has worked to protect for more than 30 years in a variety of capacities.
As Howell has been known to say: “Art is my vice, and wilderness, my heart.”
Associate Director Carolyn Schroth stepped into the role of executive director, and, for the last couple months, business has carried on as usual, more or less.
Since Howell did much of the grant writing and development for the organization, WWA hired Claudia Colnar in November to serve as development director/grants writer.
“This is a modest transition,” Schroth said. “Liz has done a fantastic job of establishing the Wyoming Wilderness Association, now in its 11th year. She established a talented organization and built strong community support for what we do.”
And now, the WWA will continue to do what it has done for more than a decade: work to protect Wyoming’s pristine public lands.
“We want to leave pristine places untrammeled and untouched for future generations,” Schroth said.
Schroth said it is hard to put into words how it feels to stand in an area unmarked by roads or development, but she wants Wyoming’s future generations and visitors to experience that sense of solace and overwhelming beauty in perpetuity.
Protecting areas as designated wilderness — which prohibits roads, motorized traffic, mountain bikes, permanent structures and other activities such as logging and mining that can harm the landscape — is the highest form of protection the government can give to a land.
Since 1984, when the Cloud Peak Wilderness was given permanent protection by Congress, there have been no new lands set aside in Wyoming as wilderness areas. Several areas — including Rock Creek in the Bighorn Mountains — have been recommended as wilderness areas but have failed to attain full congressional protection.
Schroth hopes that will change soon through the work of her staff and volunteers.
As activists — not lobbyists — members of the wilderness association strive to protect Wyoming’s wild places through a variety of means, always stressing balance.
“Wyoming has a heavy emphasis on the development of natural resources, and we understand that. We’re not trying to lock everything up,” Schroth said. “It’s about balance and multi-use. Snowmobilers, mountain bikers, they should be able to enjoy their sport — but not everywhere.”
Staff and volunteers work with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service as partners to get an “on the ground” understanding of issues. They encourage both organizations to recommend land to be set aside for wildernesss protection in their management plans and revisions.
The WWA works to give Wyoming citizens a voice by educating them on how and when to make public comments on issues involving public lands. It also holds public events to increase awareness for the need to protect wilderness areas. Events include the Banff Mountain Film Festival and Backcountry Film Festival and a series of approximately 20 summer outings that get the public into the wild areas WWA is striving to protect.
Currently, WWA has staff working in the Shoshone National Forest to convince USFS representatives to recommend more land for protection before its management plan is finalized. Staff in the Bridger-Teton National Forest are striving to protect the Palisades WSA and work with the Forest Service, which has not updated its forest management plan for more than 20 years.
A WWA staff member also works with the BLM to advocate for protection of pristine BLM lands. There are currently 18 million acres of BLM land, of which only 600,000 acres are suitable (undeveloped and roadless) for a wilderness designation, Schroth said.
In the Bighorn National Forest, WWA staff and volunteers are advocating for the Rock Creek Recommended Wilderness to receive a full wilderness designation, among other work.
As the association moves into the future, it has increased its efforts to reach youth and to use technology to its advantage.
Office Organizer Nikole Velikaneye implemented the use of iPads in fieldwork this last year to efficiently inventory land complete with GPS waypoints, photographs and descriptions in one handy location that can easily be transferred to an overall database.
WWA also launched the Young Ambassadors for Wilderness program this year, which is intended to cultivate the next generation of wilderness leaders through a 20-month program that includes ranger shadowing, classroom learning and the chance to travel to New Mexico to serve as leaders in the 50th Anniversary of Wilderness Conference in October 2014.
“We realize there is a gap in understanding among young people of the resources we have in Wyoming. We want to be stewards of young people, get them out in our wilderness areas, teach them the skills they need to know,” Schroth said. “We need to fill the pipeline, so to speak, for new wilderness leaders as people like Liz retire.”
Howell founded the Wyoming Wilderness Association in her kitchen in 2003. It eventually grew to include offices in Sheridan, Jackson, Lander and Dubois with a staff of seven and dozens of volunteers who serve as activists for preserving Wyoming’s lands.
Winter Solstice Celebration
Join the Wyoming Wilderness Association as it celebrates the winter solstice and a new season at WWA. Celebration will include live music by J. Shogren and Jackson Clarendon, as well as a fire pit into which people can cast wood chips with the negatives things from their lives written on the them to burn them up and start anew.
When: 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Blacktooth Brewing Company, 312 Broadway Street
Cost: Free and open to the public. There will be free snacks and a cash bar.