SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Wilderness Association used the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to bring stakeholders together to resurrect old conversations about designations. The three rivers up for designation in the Sheridan County area include Little Bighorn River, Tongue River and South Rock Creek in the Bighorns.
EcoFlight took stakeholders on a tour over the three areas. EcoFlight educates and advocates for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat using small aircraft. Gary Kraft piloted three flights for high school students, ranchers, private land owners, politicians, outfitters, engineers and recreators of all types.
WWA executive director Khale Century Reno said 75 percent of Wyoming residents are involved in outdoor recreation and emphasized that tourism and recreation are Wyoming’s No. 2 economic driver. While WWA and EcoFlight advocate strongly for the stretches of river to become designated, stakeholders differ on their desire to see the designations go through Congress.
The WWA chose to ignite the conversation again after years of silence on the subject. The group will continue gathering thoughts around the idea to see if this is something a future congressional delegate will want to pick up and push forward. The organization will also find out if there is local support for the river designation considerations and Rock Creek Wilderness designation consideration that was dropped years ago.
For an area of land to be designated, it must pass eligibility and suitability determinations. Designations may vary based on the intent of the forest plan and include wild, scenic or recreation river areas. The U.S. Forest Service defines wild rivers as free of impoundments, generally inaccessible except by trails, essentially primitive and unpolluted. Scenic rivers are similar to wild but are accessible by roads in places. Recreational rivers are readily accessible by roads or railroad, may have some development along shorelines and may have some impoundments or diversions from past work.
On the Little Bighorn River, 9.7 miles from Dry Fork Trail Bridge to Wagon Box Creek, 4.11 miles from Wagon Box Creek to Fools Gold Crossing and 6.2 miles from Littlehorn at Dry Fork to Lake Creek were determined suitable for a scenic designation.
On the Tongue River, 8.1 miles northwest starting at the bridge at Tongue River Canyon was determined eligible for wild; 21.75 miles from North Fork to Pole Creek is eligible for recreation designation; and 3 miles from South Fork to Johnson Creek was deemed eligible for scenic designation.
The recommended wilderness designation for Rock Creek in the Bighorn National Forest was removed from congressional recommendation for the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984 due to a lease on the land for oil and gas and the potential for water storage. Because of the removal, Century Reno said the USFS pushed up the river designation for South Rock Creek from the forest boundary to the headwaters.
Wild designation would span 13.04 miles of the river and a scenic designation would add 3.24 miles for a total of 16.28 miles of designation in the area.
In discussions with stakeholders during and after the flights Tuesday, Century Reno said one particular rancher was undecided on whether the designations would benefit his personal involvement in the area. On one side, the area in his concern would be preserved and he would have the same access, including the use of ATVs, for business purposes. On the other, designating the river might bring more recreators to the area.
Rep. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, represented several opposing entities in the stakeholder conversation — recreator through hunting, fishing and camping, politician with access to members of Congress who hold the power in the designation process and employee of Western Land Services, a land surveying company working closely with oil gas and mineral companies. Biteman said while he needs statistical proof before he decides his stance on the issue, he doesn’t believe the oil and gas industry poses any threat of development in the areas suggested for designation. The one interesting area where those entities might clash, Biteman said, is the Rock Creek area, which Century Reno said stretches from “prairie to peak.”
The Wyoming Wilderness Association highly encouraged interested citizens to learn about the areas up for potential designation. The next step for WWA will be to listen to citizens and collect stories and stances on the issue. Century Reno invited anyone interested to visit the WWA office at any time to share perspectives so the organization can help determine the community’s desire for the areas.