County commissioners put off letter to Cheney on Wilderness Areas

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Teton County Board of Commissioners considered this morning drafting a letter to Representative Liz Cheney expressing the county’s concern for her proposed piece of legislation (HR4697), which some feel undermines ongoing efforts made by the county’s Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI).

BCC board chair Mark Newcomb led the discussion introducing a draft letter he wanted to send to Cheney, as well as US Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso. Newcomb said Cheney’s bill would allow for up to 1,200 skier days for heli-skiing and use of motorbikes and snowmachines without limit in areas encompassed by the Palisades and Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Areas.

Public comment on the agenda item included Lloyd Dorsey (conservation director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club) expressed his support for the board to make the wishes of Teton County known, especially as they pertain to carrying out the stated goals and desires of the 2012 Comprehensive Plan.

Phil Hocker, who was involved with the creation of the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984, also supported some kind of pushback by the county on Cheney’s bill.

Wilson activist and biologist Ann Harvey said, “The Cheney bill really threw us all for a loop. I think she blindsided everybody. I’m glad to hear you are willing to write a letter, and I understand the caution.” Harvey added that she thought Cheney is leaning one way—away from conservation and toward motorized use. “I urge you to keep the conservation wording.”

How they voted

Commissioner Paul Vogelheim said he was in support of the letter. In fact, he helped Newcomb draft it. Timing was the issue for him. He suggested waiting a week before sending it off.

“We are in a delicate position,” Vogelheim said. He also brought up last-minute news that hopes of getting buy-in from Lincoln County was not going to happen. Roughly half of the Palisades Wilderness Study Area is in Lincoln County but commissioners there have been reluctant to work with the WLPI. According to Vogelheim, Lincoln County Board of Commissioner chair Robert King today said he was not interested in a letter to Cheney, either.

But Vogelheim said he was encouraged by a conference call last week involving Cheney and representatives of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. Cheney told the committee she was interested in hearing concerns and constructive criticism from Teton County concerning the bill.

Vogelheim said he preferred working a little more with Cheney’s staff as the “most effective way to influence this bill” before firing off a letter.

Commissioner Greg Epstein said he for one wasn’t waiting with bated breath for Lincoln County to get involved. “It’s been their strategy the whole time not wanting to participate in WPLI,” Epstein said. He added that he was a little concerned the letter was too heavy on conservation points and wanted to see a re-draft.

“On a national level the play is local engagement is being taken away…I think we need to continue to push for local communities to be involved in the decisions that take place in our backyards,” Epstein said.

Commissioner Smokey Rhea said she has been worried about the bill since first catching wind of it in November. She also thought it telling tat Cheney has been back to Teton County since then and did not take the opportunity to reach out to local leaders.

“She was elected by Wyoming and has to listen to the whole state. We were elected by county voters and our responsibility is to them,” Rhea said, adding that she could wait a week but not much longer.

Commissioner Natalia D. Macker was absent. The item was continue until a meeting on February 20.

Letter from the Board of Teton County Commissioners as proposed by chair Mark Newcomb:

As do you, we in Teton county feel fortunate to live amidst big landscapes, where large tracks of less-trammeled land offer lovers of the outdoors—hunters, fishermen, hikers, bikers, boaters, campers, snowmobilers, dirt bikers and off-road explorers—expansive opportunities to pursue freedom of recreation, freedom of economic opportunity, freedom to thrive in our individual pursuits. These landscapes also afford many of North America’s most iconic game species the freedom to roam and thrive as wildlife must.

Preserving wild and remote backcountry experiences for all, maintaining healthy wildlife populations, and ensuring a healthy environment for future generations entails limits on human use and presence. Determining those limits isn’t easy.

Teton County’s Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI) committee has been wrestling mightily over finding a balance between access, use and environmental protection on Teton County’s public lands. They’ve wrestled about what type and how much human traffic and congestion fundamentally degrades a backcountry adventure; they’ve tussled over where, how, what and how much human traffic tips game populations, fisheries, and habitats beyond critical thresholds; they’ve poured over maps. They’ve invested a lot of time and effort in the process and taken ownership of and responsibility for a major, major undertaking unrivalled since the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act.

HR 4679 does not reflect that effort. It might reflect the interests of at least 1,800 people in and around Teton County that took the time to send a One Click Politics email. It might reflect the interests and goals of High Mountain Heli-skiing. It doesn’t reflect the work of the WPLI committee.

As a result, under HR 4697, environmentalists will continue to exert pressure through any legal means on the Forest Service to regulate uses and use levels. Under HR 4697 advocates of multiple use will continue to exert pressure on the Forest Service to allow past, present and future uses at levels that may or may not have anything to do with environmental stewardship. Under HR 4697 both sides will continue to try to outflank one another both in and out of court resulting in a legal free-for-all and an even worse management challenge for the Forest Service.

We believe a more long-lasting, durable resolution to the question of how to manage public lands in Teton County, lands that include substantial portions of the Palisades and Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Areas, would be one generated by the WPLI committee. This would be a resolution hashed out over days and days of debate and negotiation, rooted in consensus where all stakeholders are invested in the outcome and where all stakeholders compromised a little in return for a much bigger community gain.

The County Commission does not have a position for or against the specific provisions of H.R. 4697 at this time. We do believe the introduction of this bill seriously damages our community effort. We respectfully request that you withdraw this bill now.

With gratitude for your hard work and efforts on behalf of Teton County and Wyoming,

Mark Newcomb                                                       Smokey Rhea

Natalia Duncan Macker                                            Greg Epstein

Paul Vogelheim

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