SHERIDAN — U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, sponsored and released a bill Sept. 27 that would remove wilderness study area statuses of lands in three counties and remove inventoried lands with wilderness characteristics and recommended wilderness statewide.
According to Cheney’s website, the legislation lifts the restrictive Wilderness Study Area designations, which Congress never intended to be permanent, in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties. The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative is a county-led process intended to result in one, multi-county legislative lands package with a goal for a new federal law governing the designation and management of Wyoming’s WSAs and address other public land management issues and opportunities, according to its website. Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties all opted out of the initiative and requested Congress act to release their WSAs.
While this does not directly impact Sheridan County or the immediate Bighorn National Forest and Bureau of Land Management designated wilderness areas or potential WSAs, local entities remain engaged in the conversation and the potential for its impact.
Bighorn National Forest supervisor Andrew Johnson said he could not comment on proposed legislation but said there is a significant difference between the two designations. The Bighorn National Forest does not have congressionally designated WSAs but does have areas designated by the forest plan as recommended wilderness areas, which national forest employees manage.
“We manage that to preserve its wilderness characteristics,” Johnson said of the potential wilderness areas like Rock Creek. “That doesn’t mean we have the same restrictions on use of motorized equipment like we do in wilderness.
“But we generally try to ensure that should Congress decide to designate Rock Creek as wilderness that we have done our part to maintain its wilderness characteristics so that’s an opportunity in the future if Congress so decides.”
Former U.S. Forest Service employee and current president of the Bighorn Audubon Society Jackie Canterbury said she trusts federal entities more than local in management of wilderness areas.
“I would rather personally work with those laws at the federal level than I would at the state level,” Canterbury said. “Cheney’s ear is toward consumptive use; her ear is not toward users of public lands that want to keep it in public hands.”
Canterbury said it is not for distrust of state employees; instead, it is more for support for federal laws that work well in terms of caring for public land.
“I have heard from county commissioners, local officials and other impacted users requesting that the WSA designations be lifted in these counties to restore management for multiple use and sustained yield,” Cheney said on her website. “Recreation, ranching and other economic activities have been negatively impacted by the decades-old WSA designation, which prevents access, locks up land and resources, restricts grazing rights and hinders good rangeland and resource management.”
Wyoming Wilderness Association leaders found the bill troubling, saying the bill’s introduction threatens more than half of Wyoming’s WSA designations and more than 400,000 acres containing high-desert habitat for species such as elk, deer and sage grouse.
“Releasing these areas from WSA status will allow for industrial and motorized uses that will devastate the wilderness of these places,” WWA executive director Khale Century Reno said.
Century Reno said the title of the bill suggests that public access has not been available in these areas, but local backcountry horsemen, hunters, anglers and hikers have used these places to escape the “millions of acres already being used by industry and motorized uses.”
Rob Davidson with Council for the Bighorn Range noted that once designated wilderness or wilderness study areas are transformed into multiple use locations, there is no way of reversing damage done.
“We’re not gaining any more wilderness. We can’t make anymore,” Davidson said. “We’re losing a lot.”
The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources by the House of Representatives.
*Note: This article was updated Oct. 18 at 7:30 a.m. to reflect more accurate information about the bill.