Earlier this summer, the Teton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to join the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative – also known as WPLI – and to hire the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute to facilitate the County’s engagement in the initiative process.
Like many folks, you’re probably wondering, what the heck is a WPLI and why would Teton County want to participate in it? Great question.
Here’s the deal.
Around thirty years ago, the federal government evaluated and identified a bunch of land that’s undeveloped and contains wilderness characteristics. Congress designated a lot of this land as Wilderness, but left some of it with the impermanent designation as “wilderness study areas,” or WSAs.
There are 42 of these areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Wyoming and three managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), totaling over 700,000 acres. Here in Teton County we’ve got the 136,000-acre Palisades WSA (which is also in Lincoln County, WY, with some “recommended wilderness” in Idaho), and the 32,000 Shoal Creek WSA (which Teton County shares with Sublette County).
Because they are not formally designated Wilderness, their status has been in limbo for years. The agencies must manage them to retain their wilderness character until directed by legislation for their permanent protection or other management.
Here’s the thing. WSAs are an impermanent designation. No one ever intended for these lands to get managed for so many years without formal designation, and there are stakeholders in Wyoming who would like to see the question resolved and see a permanent decision regarding their future status. Unlike Wilderness, WSAs allow more management uncertainty, so agencies aren’t always completely sure what activities they can/cannot be permit. This means that some of the wilderness qualities in these WSAs are getting chipped away
In addition, many of these areas’ wilderness qualities have been threatened by mismanagement and impairment, and there’s the threat that Congress could make a decision about their fate without our input.
The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative is 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. The ultimate goal is a new federal law that governs the designation and management of Wyoming’s 42 BLM and 3 USFS WSAs in Wyoming; and, where opportunities exist, addresses other public land management issues affecting the broader landscape.
That’s right, WPLI isn’t just about WSAs. It’s an opportunity for a larger look at our landscape and for increased conservation protection of our American public lands.
The Alliance believes WPLI offers an opportunity to create legislation permanently addressing Wyoming WSAs, and to design permanent management for other important landscapes, using a process that is fair, inclusive, transparent, and appropriate for our community. WPLI also provides an opportunity to work collaboratively with diverse stakeholders in good faith to create win-win solutions that protect these landscapes and provide certainty for our community.
If we get WPLI right, we could see the first new wilderness designations in Wyoming in more than 30 years and other permanent designations for our special local landscapes. But let’s be clear, as with any political process, there’s no guarantee we’ll get WPLI right.
That’s why the Alliance is committed to participating in the process and advocating for conservation interests. We recognize there’s risks involved, so we’re dedicated to ensuring we achieve the strongest possible protections for our American public lands through a well-run collaborative process.
But we can’t get it done without your help.
The easiest way for you to help is to participate once the WPLI process gets underway in the coming months. As WPLI will involve a transparent and public process, you’ll have the opportunity to speak up and make you’re voice heard regarding the future of our public lands.
If you want to engage at a deeper level, consider applying for the Teton County WPLI Advisory Board. Applications are due this Friday and are available, along with more information, here.
Stay tuned for more information on how you can participate in WPLI and help Teton County, Wyoming, and Congress get this right.
Photo credit: Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight