The future of the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area (WSA) being contemplated now by a citizens’ committee has ranged over the past year from members wanting to designate the entire parcel as wilderness to “no new wilderness” – or something in between.
And even what is meant by “something in between” is strongly debated at each meeting of the Sublette Wyoming Public Lands Initiative’s (WPLI) advisory committee, which is reviewing three stalled WSA designations to recommend their future management – Shoal Creek, Scab Creek and Lake Mountain.
The advisory committee has recognized in its months of public meetings that compromises are needed to reach consensus – that any “all or nothing” solutions of total wilderness or full release would not be accepted.
At the Sublette WPLI’s Feb. 7 meeting, two county officials – one a liaison and the other a committee member – related their departments’ written state and federal public-lands policies speak against approving more wilderness and for traditional and modern-day multiple uses.
Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman, the county’s WPLI liaison, told the committee he isn’t sure his board will approve any Shoal Creek recommendation that adds designated “wilderness” to the existing Gros Ventre Wilderness.
The Shoal Creek WSA is located east of Bondurant in the Hoback Basin.
Many on the committee were unaware of the 2009 Sublette County Federal and State Land Use Policy, which states, “No additional federal lands in Sublette County are suitable for wilderness designation other than the vast expanse of existing wilderness areas in the county. Sublette County opposes any such further designations.”
“I took it to the other commissioners to ask, if this committee’s proposal contains any wilderness, will they entertain it?” Bousman said. “The message they left me with is, ‘We, the commission, will take it under consideration.’ At a minimum, they need the strong support of this board.”
If there is strong public support for new wilderness in Sublette County, that would be taken into account, Bousman added.
The Sublette WPLI committee’s eight members represent motorized and nonmotorized recreation, conservation, agriculture and ranching, sportsmen, energy, conservation district and general public interests and groups.
Most of the Shoal Creek WSA falls within Sublette County but about 11,000 acres is in Teton County. That county’s WPLI 21-member advisory group, with conservation groups from the local, state and national levels, also has made proposals.
Earlier this year, for example, Teton WPLI “general public” member Rob Shaul proposed the entire Shoal Creek WSA be designated as wilderness, according to the Sublette advisory committee.
Conservation district perspective
Sublette County Conservation District manager Mike Henn, who is on the advisory committee, also related that he took a Shoal Creek WSA map with added wilderness along the Gros Ventre Wilderness’s south boundary to his elected board of supervisors.
That board is very reluctant to add wilderness or do anything with WSAs other than seek full release back to Forest Service multiple-use management, he said.
The SCCD policy states in part, “Sublette County supports the expeditious resolution of pending congressional wilderness designation proposals for BLM WSAs in Sublette County and supports the release of WSAs not recommended for wilderness designation from non-impairment management. There shall be no protective perimeters or buffer zones around wilderness areas.”
“They voted, 4-1, to support their policy statement – no new wilderness in the county,” Henn said. “That’s where I have to sit. If it comes to a vote, I will take it back to this board.”
WPLI Member Monte Skinner commented, “We’re not trying to add new wilderness, are we? If we move the wilderness boundary, that becomes part of the Gros Ventre Wilderness?
“It’s within the WSA, but it would be new wilderness,” Bill Lanning, another member, explained.
General public member Dave Bell reminded the committee there is more acceptance to extend wilderness of about 5,400 acres from the current boundary west to the Elbow, a feature of the Gros Ventre Range.
Lanning said his motorized recreation group would support that move and would also like to see the Forest Service reopen “closed roads” in the Hoback Basin.
Then Coke Landers, ag and ranching committee member and co-chair, reported he attended the Feb. 6 meeting of the Hoback Cattle Association whose members hold Forest Service grazing permits in the Hoback Basin, including in the Shoal Creek WSA.
The permittees were presented with the concept of an extended designated wilderness portion along the current Gros Ventre Wilderness boundary and protecting the rest with a national recreation area designation with grazing and other multiple uses written in.
“Permittees unanimously voted ‘no new wilderness or designation,’” said Landers. “That’s my constituency.”
Facilitator Steve Smutko reminded the committee, “As we work together and figure out compromises, we are often outpacing your constituents. Once we make that agreement, how does this committee see that through and commit to it?”
He asked them to take the day’s discussions back to their constituents.
“That’s putting a big target on our backs,” Landers commented.
Smutko said if they compromise and agree on a Shoal Creek WSA proposal, “Then, it’s up to this committee to support it, if they think it’s right.”
There was much more discussion about a possible “national recreation area” designation. Smitherman said he wanted to see a proposal that will protect all three WSAs’ values.
“Let’s call it a special management area,” Smitherman said. “I’m not hung up on what we call it.”
Chad Hayward of the U.S. Forest Service explained his lack of experience with special management areas, but that it can be written to include and protect numerous interests. The Forest Service is just beginning its new Bridger-Teton National Forest plan, which might bring changes to the status quo, he added.
The statewide initiative was kick-started by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and signed onto by the Sublette Board of County Commissioners. Commissioners must approve each WSA’s management recommendations before they are packaged for possible legislation before Congress.
Many WSAs across the West have languished since being “inventoried” as potential wilderness several decades ago by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
The Sublette WPLI advisory committee meets again on Feb. 21 and March 7, 1-5 p.m. at the Sublette County Weed and Pest Office. For more information, go to sublettewpli.com.
Joy Ufford is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and reporter for the Sublette Examiner and Pinedale Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.