Wyoming’s wilderness study areas from 12,000 feet
|Wilderness Study Area: an interim public land designation that gives little guidance about management|
|Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984: a bill that designated certain public lands for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System and designated other public lands for further study|
|Wyoming Public Lands Initiative: created by the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association to determine new designations for the 45 wilderness study areas in Wyoming|
Tensions have risen about the wilderness study areas in Teton County, Wyoming, but the committee in charge of deciding the land’s fate is not making any hasty decisions.
In Teton County, there are two WSAs, both managed by the Bridger-Teton National Forest: Palisades and Shoal Creek. The Teton Wyoming Public Lands committee is composed of over 20 members representing different stakeholder groups in the community. They have met monthly for the last year. Linda Merigliano, the Wilderness and Recreation Program Manager for the BTNF, is an advisor for the committee.
“At some point we’ve got to figure out what the future of these public lands is,” Merigliano said during a presentation to college students last Wednesday. “It’s very dependent on the public being really involved because it’s about what the future is.”
Merigliano knows more than most about finding compromise between user groups. In 2004 she brokered the deal to rework and legalize the downhill mountain bike trails on Teton Pass, an extraordinary move for the Forest Service.
The committee has made no decisions about a recommended designation, stressed Abigail Moore, who represents the general public at Teton WPLI meetings. The committee is only now beginning to sift through all the options. The only certainty is that the land can’t remain a WSA.
“You have to start with, what are our values? What are our interests? What do we care about? Where can we find common ground? And what tools do we want to use to protect those values?” Merigliano said.
Some possible designations include national conservation area, state recreation area, and wilderness area. The committee can choose to carve up the WSA for different user groups, or extend a new designation onto neighboring public land. The final recommendation needs buy-in from all the committee members, so compromise is an essential facet of the WPLI process.
“This is not a black and white issue. This is not wilderness or nothing. There’s all kinds of ways you can protect those values legislatively,” Merigliano said.
The most vocal members of the public have been snowmobilers, who stand to lose access if the committee decides to recommend a wilderness designation. While summer motorized use isn’t permitted in most of the WSA, the winter motorized user group was grandfathered in by the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984.
“I want everyone to win and I think it’s possible, but everyone has to compromise,” Moore said.
Congress has to approve whatever recommendation the committee ends up making.
“You never know what holes might get punched in whatever recommendation you might come up with,” Moore said.
The WSA borders a recommended wilderness area on the Idaho side. This is managed by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, rather than the Bridger-Teton. Caribou-Targhee revised its forest plan in 1997 and designated the Palisades area as recommended wilderness, which means it is up to Congress to adopt it as wilderness. This is unlikely to happen any time soon, and the area is open to motorized and mechanized use, as long as the Forest Service protects the wilderness character of the land.
The view from above
This year Colorado-based nonprofit EcoFlight has taken committee members aloft to view the Palisades and Shoal Creek WSAs. The mission of EcoFlight is conservation and education through aerial tours, and EcoFlight Executive Director Bruce Gordon chose WPLI as the topic of the 2017 Flight Across America because of the collaborative process it showcases.
“I’m enamored with the idea that everyone’s talking with each other, especially in rural areas,” Gordon said.
Members of the press were taken on a short flight last Wednesday morning to see what the FLAA students are seeing. As Gordon piloted the small aircraft over Teton Pass, he raved about the contiguous wild land in the Palisades.
“It’s nothing like Aspen,” he said, referencing his home base.
The edges of the WSA see recreational use by skiers, bikers, snowmobilers, hikers, hunters, and horse packers, but much of the land is remote and inaccessible for day users. Mining and logging are virtually nonexistent in the Palisades. From above one can see the long ridges and fertile drainages of the Palisades, uninterrupted by roads or powerlines. The range provides rich habitat for the diverse wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In a region known for its vast spaces, the Palisades WSA is a remarkably big, wild piece of land.
“We let the land speak for itself,” Gordon said.
The Teton WPLI committee meets on the second Wednesday of each month in Jackson at 2:00 p.m. The public is welcome to attend. Visit tetonwpli.org to find more information and to submit public comment.