Sublette County group continues considering wilderness study areas across the county
Pinedale – The Sublette County Advisory Committee of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI) is getting down to the nitty-gritty with ongoing discussions about the future of the county’s three wilderness study areas.
A Feb. 21 meeting of the group led to a working proposal for the Scab Creek Wilderness Study Area (WSA), a “national conservation area” with management prescriptions for the Bureau of Land Management to follow, pending answers to a question about whether or not grazing permittees might be affected in the future.
The group also discussed the Lake Mountain WSA, opting to continue discussions about the Shoal Creek WSA – the most contentious of the WSAs being considered – at future meetings.
The Scab Creek WSA sits east of Boulder, and members of the public familiar with the area shared their insights on the WSA during the meeting, noting access to the area is extremely difficult at best on foot or horseback.
Cotton Bousman of Eastfork Livestock Inc. in Boulder, noted “a sad decline” in the Bridger Wilderness surrounding the WSA, with old signs gone and trails impassable. His family owns private ranch lands near the WSA and grazes cattle above Scab Creek.
“It can take a full day to go two miles to get cattle out of there,” he said of the WSA, adding, “It’s a de facto wilderness.”
As chair of the Pinedale Grazing Board, Bousman said, “We have extensive wilderness discussions. The position of the Wyoming State Grazing Board would be to either make it wilderness or release it back to multiple-use.”
Amid tense discussions, Sublette County Conservation District Member Mike Henn offered one proposal, commenting, “Turn it all back as a ‘soft release’ for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to run under its resource management plan.”
A “soft release” would mean it could be reintroduced for wilderness, while a “hard release” means it goes back to BLM’s current management.
Henn suggested having “no surface occupancy” and leaving the trails and roads open in a soft release.
Concerns from recreation members on the board included potential lack of access, as the WSA is only accessible through private land.
Dave Bell, general public member, spoke up, saying, “I’ve gone around and around like a cat chasing its tail on Scab Creek, from 100-percent wilderness to a hard release. I’m still undecided. The only thing that makes sense to me is a national conservation area with prescriptive management. It would be a gain for everybody and satisfy a lot of concerns. I really struggle with this one personally.”
Coke Landers, who represents agriculture on the committee, asked Henn about “legal ins and outs” of how permittees might be affected in the long run with prescriptive management. “I want to make sure it’s in order.”
“We’ll have the same kind of questions for each WSA,” Henn agreed, adding the sole Scab Creek grazing allotment is currently vacant.
Steve Smutko of USFS, who serves as facilitator, asked if the committee was willing to move forward with the “middle” management prescription proposal until they get a clear answer to that question.
“We’ve had the most constructive, fluid conversation of the three proposals on proposal three,” Landers agreed.
Moving on to the Lake Mountain WSA, an emphasis on give and take by all members of the group was heard.
Previously, co-chair Dan Smitherman, conservation member, proposed adding 5,500 acres of adjacent “land with wilderness characteristics” to the Lake Mountain WSA, commenting, “We’re missing an opportunity with the land outside Lake Mountain even though it’s not part of the WSA.”
Bill Lanning, motorized recreation member of the group, outlined “a national conservation area (NCA) designation versus the current Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC)” to protect a pure strain of Colorado cutthroat trout in the Rock Creek drainage.
His proposal included adjusting the NCA boundary to “hydrographic breaks,” not allowing off-highway vehicles or mountain bike use, withdrawing mineral entry, not permitting new surface disturbance or new oil and gas leases, only allowing directional drilling from existing oil and gas leases outside the boundary, keeping it open to hunting and fishing and allowing no road or motorized fire trails, no vegetation treatments except those that maintain or benefit the Colorado cutthroat trout habitat and population and no geophysical exploration.
For the rest of the WSA, Lanning proposed a “hard release,” meaning it could not be re-designated for wilderness and recommended making it the Lake Mountain Management Area.
The group agreed on Rock Creek protections, but Mike Smith, a member of the group representing the energy industry, said, “I didn’t see anything that justifies any kind of strong preventative protective management. I don’t think we plop a wilderness area next to a historic gas field, but I’m comfortable making some sort of designation on Rock Creek.”
“There are 14,000 acres protected here as a WSA,” Smitherman said. “So now I’ve lost 9,000 acres of protected land without any gains in the region.”
After more back and forth, Smutko paused the discussion, saying, “I want this committee to continue with this. Lake Mountain is at a good holding point.”
Joy Ufford is a reporter for the Pinedale Roundup and Sublette Examiner and writes for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.