’til Tuesday: Here we go again…again, with WPLI

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – After two years of inching its way toward some kind of consensus on what the general public would like to see become of wilderness study areas within Teton County—namely the Palisades and Shoal Creek WSAs—a committee and county are no closer toward an answer than when they began.

The WPLI (Wyoming Public Lands Initiative) was to be a unique way for local government to have a say in how federal lands are managed—the primary area of focus being wilderness study areas (WSA).

These WSAs were intended to be temporary designations assigned to public land thought to have such an intrinsic ‘wild’ value to them, they were kept protected from development, new roads, timber extraction, mining and other manmade influences like motorized travel. Temporary has now persisted for more than three decades and some feel it is time to iron out who and what can occur on some of these federally-managed public lands.

The ultimate goal, according to WPLI organizers the Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA), is a new federal law that governs the designation and management of Wyoming’s 42 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and three US Forest Service (USFS) Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in Wyoming; and, where opportunities exist, addresses other public land management issues affecting the broader landscape.

The idea was to come up with a collaborative, county-led process intended to result in one, multi-county legislative lands package that is broadly supported by public lands stakeholders in Wyoming, and advanced to the Congressional delegation for introduction in Congress. Simply enough, right?

Think again.

The wheels began coming off almost immediately when, in Commissioner Smokey Rhea’s words, “In the beginning, within weeks, some people dug in their heels and refused to compromise, and that was unfortunate.”

Rhea admitted to frustration at all levels about a process that was to be collaborative. But collaboration in a county known for its passionate, engaged and diverse user groups never happened. Instead, various stakeholders became increasingly polarized until the 18-member local committee returned to the Board of County Commissioners admitting they had splintered off into three different directions and could no longer function.

Back one more time to the drawing board, the board told the committee. And back they came yesterday, this time with more than a hundred grandstanding for what they thought should be allowed on public land.

At one end of the spectrum, some feel any restrictions on forest land are simply an attempt to lock the public out. Others fear loosening restriction opens the door to clear-cutting, strip mining and motorheads running roughshod over the country. Somewhere in the middle is the truth but no one has yet found it in the WPLI process that culminated in a 3-hour, 20-minute meeting Monday morning at the county commission chambers.

When commissioners finished hearing more than two hours of public comment, they realized how difficult it would be to find common ground.

“I don’t know what the next step in the process is, but I don’t know we can expect success at Congress unless we can make everyone in the room happy,” Commissioner Natalia Macker lamented.

Commissioner Paul Vogelheim seemed the only board member with the stomach to keep at it.

“We don’t always get unanimous support up here. Sometimes we are at 80% consensus and have to move forward with that,” Vogelheim said. “I still want to see if there is energy to strive for a greater consensus. If that’s not possible, then we let it go. But we have two years of hard work into this.”

“It sounds like a remand,” chair Mark Newcomb said.

“Yes, as frightening as that is,” Vogelheim responded

“I can’t support that, myself,” Newcomb said.

Commissioner Greg Epstein interjected, “It doesn’t sound like there is a lot of energy to keep at this. People have put in what they want to put in. We’ve already sent it back twice. I think it’s time for closure.

After 200 minutes at it Monday morning, the BCC agreed on only a low- hanging resolution that they would like to see wildlife protection in the first order with no new roads, no new logging operations, no mineral extraction of any kind and no new development in WSAs.

As far as who could use the lands and for what purpose, they agreed, barely (Newcomb and Epstein opposed), to sleep on it another week to see if somehow everyone could come back happier and in better harmony.


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