Committee works towards new designation for Palisades Wilderness Study Area
The Palisades Wilderness Study Area (WSA) has been in limbo for thirty years. Now a committee has formed to come up with a solution, which may impact recreational users in unforeseen ways.
“WSA is a problematic designation,” said Executive Director of Mountain Bike the Tetons Amanda Carey. “It’s nebulous. It’s not good for anyone.”
The National Forest Service is hamstrung by the designation, because there are no clear, concrete rules accompanying a WSA. There is also no nation-wide consistency; WSAs are managed differently across the country.
In 1984, almost 135,000 acres of the Palisades were designated a WSA by the Wyoming Wilderness Act. The area is approximately bounded by Highway 22 to the north, the Wyoming-Idaho state border to the west, the Snake River to the south, and Fall Creek Road to the east.
A WSA is a designation of federal lands that are managed to protect wilderness characteristics pending further study. The state of Wyoming is now seeking to replace WSAs across the state with more permanent management plans.
“We can always kick the can down the road, but with the current political climate, we think now is the time to move forward,” said Carey.
There are myriad options. Designations such as National Conservation Area, National Forest, State Recreation Area, and Wilderness Area each have different regulations about user access, with Wilderness being the most restrictive.
The Teton County, Wyoming Board of Commissioners appointed a Teton County Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI) Advisory Committee to determine how to manage the Palisades and Shoal Creek WSAs.
“I am in no way speaking for the committee, but I am speaking on behalf on my constituency,” said Carey.
Carey represents mountain bikers on both sides of the Tetons. The Palisades range sees snowmobilers, mountain bikers, skiers, hunters, hikers, and dirt bikers, but deep access is challenging, and recreational travel is lighter than in the Tetons. There is currently a helicopter ski company operation with permits for the Palisades. Most of the range’s commercial use comes from livestock grazing, with minimal logging and mineral extraction.
The WPLI Committee has twenty members representing diverse interests in the outdoor community. Some of the entities represented include the Sierra Club, the local snowmobile club, guiding outfits, land managers, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, and wildlife organizations.
Carey emphasized the fact that this is a very slow-moving process. The WPLI Committee has met for approximately 12 hours since its inception in October, and has just finished establishing its charter. The group is now ready to move on to information gathering.
There are currently no proposals on the table; the committee hasn’t reached that point yet.
While this is at very least a year-long process, Carey said the next few months, during information gathering, are when public input is most essential. The National Forest Service does not have the resources to assess usage numbers or penetration, so it’s up to users to let the WPLI Committee know how and where they access the Palisades WSA.
At the Teton WPLI website (tetonwpli.org), there is an interactive map of the WSA. Site visitors can drop pins on the map and write comments to provide the WPLI Committee with more data. Any information is welcome, from simple notes about a popular mountain bike trail or the nest location of a rare bird, to comments on potential user conflicts.
“We are dying for people to tell us what they think,” said Carey. “Our job is to listen to our constituents, so speak up and don’t be shy.”
The WPLI Committee meets in Jackson on the second Wednesday of every month and meetings are always open to the public. The next meeting is on Jan. 11.
Another benefit to this process is providing information to the Bridger Teton National Forest (BTNF), which currently manages over half of the Palisades WSA.
The BTNF is redoing its forest plan in 2018, which will have a significant impact on access and forest usage, and will determine the future of recreation and conservation in the BTNF. The change in forest planning will probably have a more immediate effect than the decision regarding the Palisades WSA designation.
“Changing a WSA is an act of Congress,” Carey said. “It is possible it could go nowhere. But this is our best shot at coming up with a local solution for local land use.”