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NATURAL RESOURCE SCIENCE AND MANAGEMENT IN THE WEST

What to Do with Wilderness Study Areas?

Dec 7, 2018

A collaborative stakeholder group negotiates a solution

On a sunny afternoon in early May, twelve people sat around plastic tables in a classroom in the Carbon County Higher Education Center in Rawlins, Wyoming. All were members of the Carbon County Wyoming Public Lands Initiative Advisory Committee. Since this was their 18th meeting, they were comfortable working together. They spoke honestly and openly about their beliefs and attitudes regarding management of public lands. Sitting behind the committee were a few ranchers who depend on grazing allotments in the Ferris Mountains Wilderness Study Area, one of four wilderness study areas, or WSAs, under consideration, and a subject the committee would discuss later that afternoon.

Pine tree forest with pine cone in foreground

Committee member Jeff Streeter, the North Platte Project Manager for Trout Unlimited, presented the finer points of a proposal to designate the Encampment River Canyon WSA as a new wilderness area within the National Wilderness Preservation System. John Johnson, a Carbon County Commissioner and a member of the Carbon County committee asked for more details about Streeter’s suggestion to adjust the boundary of the proposed wilderness area. Streeter pointed to a map projected on the classroom whiteboard. “I’d like to move the current WSA boundary just to the other side of the creek so that the Odd Fellows Lodge members can get to their headgate with motorized equipment,” he said.

Streeter’s proposal for designating the Encampment River Canyon as wilderness wasn’t the only option under discussion by the Carbon County committee. Leanne Correll, an agricultural consultant specializing in conservation issues who represents the general public on the committee, proposed that the WSA should be designated as a national conservation area instead, which would allow limited motorized access for grazing permittees, a use not permitted in designated wilderness areas. While Streeter’s wilderness proposal had backing from committee members representing state and national conservation organizations, those with agricultural roots in the county preferred Correll’s option.

The committee had agreed to seek a consensus solution on future designation and management recommendations for the four WSAs in Carbon County, and ironing out the differences in these two proposals was not going to be easy. Although the trade-offs between establishing the Encampment River Canyon as a wilderness area or a national conservation area may seem minor—a few ATV trips each year to repair fences and inspect irrigation structures—the implications of wilderness designation are huge in Wyoming. For some, designating new wilderness areas is the only sure way to protect remaining pristine wild places. For others, wilderness is exclusionary, limiting working lands and motorized or mechanized access. The diverse interest groups represented on the committee needed to engage in a deliberate negotiation process, one in which each participant stood to gain something. My role, as a facilitator hired by the committee, was to guide them through that process and help them successfully arrive at consensus recommendations. They had to let go of entrenched positions about wilderness and explore agreements that would benefit both the landscapes and people of Carbon County.

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A Wilderness Study Area is a federally managed roadless natural area that provides outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation and has the potential to become a wilderness area. WSAs are managed to protect their wilderness character and potential until Congress either designates them as wilderness or releases them from WSA status for other uses. In Wyoming, many areas have remained in limbo under a temporary WSA status for more than 30 years.

The Wyoming County Commissioners Association created the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative as a locally led process to recommend permanent designations for Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas. Any county with a WSA could opt into the initiative and appoint an advisory committee to negotiate the desired future uses and management of the county’s WSAs. If approved by their respective Board of County Commissioners, the recommendations of each county committee will be bundled together later this year and advanced to Wyoming’s Congressional delegation for introduction as a federal lands bill in Congress.

Wyoming is home to 45 WSAs comprising just under 706,300 acres. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 42 of them, and the US Forest Service manages the other three. The Carbon County Wyoming Public Lands Initiative Advisory Committee is one among eight such advisory committees that have formed statewide to negotiate the future management and designation of 24 of those WSAs or about 352,330 acres in Carbon, Fremont (in part with Natrona), Johnson, Park, Sublette, Teton, and Washakie (in part with Hot Springs) counties. In addition, a combined Johnson-Campbell County committee was formed to develop recommendations for the Fortification Creek WSA.

The task that these eight advisory committees agreed to take on is not trivial. Each committee must represent diverse interests related to public lands designation and, “to the maximum extent possible,” reach decisions by consensus. Committee members are to review and evaluate the natural, cultural, social, and economic aspects of each WSA; gather public input; and develop management recommendations appropriate for the lands under consideration and the people who use them. To accomplish this, committees may also consider other areas within each county for potential inclusion in their recommendations, including potential wilderness areas, land-use designations, transfers, or other management actions not within the boundaries of existing WSAs. Wanting to take action on the four WSAs in Carbon County, the County Board of Commissioners voted to assemble an advisory committee to tackle the issue.

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Carbon County formed its committee in the fall of 2016. The 11 committee members came from backgrounds including education, ranching, conservation, small business, and county government. Each member represented a specific constituency such as motorized and non-motorized recreation, hunting and fishing, agriculture and ranching, energy development, or conservation. Two committee members represented the general public. All came together with the intention of working collaboratively to find a set of management designations that make sense for the people and landscapes of Carbon County.

Aspen trees with aspen leaf in foreground

Soon after the committee was formed, Carbon County Commissioner, rancher, and committee co-chair John Espy requested facilitation assistance from the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute. As a teacher, researcher, and practitioner in collaborative decision making, I agreed to facilitate the committee. My primary responsibility was to guide it through a multi-party collaboration process where members could gather and share information, clearly communicate their interests, generate and evaluate management options, negotiate tradeoffs, and reach agreement.

I soon discovered that the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative came with some built-in challenges that would make collaborative decision making difficult. One challenge was that not everyone agreed that wilderness study area designations should change at all.

“Current management of the WSAs is a problem for some and not for others” said Joe Parsons, director of the Carbon County Conservation District and a committee member. “To find a solution to a problem that we don’t all agree to is really difficult.”

Since most WSAs are currently managed to protect their wilderness character, the status quo was more acceptable to wilderness advocates than to ATV users, for example. “I would much rather see the WSAs retained in their current status than released to general management,” said Connie Wilbert, Executive Director of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming Chapter and a Carbon County committee member. “Designations other than wilderness are difficult to justify as a conservation gain for most of Wyoming’s WSAs.”

Changing the status of a Wilderness Study Area takes an act of Congress, and if the committee failed to reach agreement on a WSA designation, that area would likely remain a WSA for years to come—a better outcome for a conservationist than for, perhaps, a rancher. This difference in perceptions of the status quo made it so some parties could take an all-or-nothing position and created a group dynamic that made collaboration difficult.

A second challenge of adapting the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative process to multi-party collaboration was finding middle ground between the two polar positions of either designating a WSA as wilderness or releasing it to general management. Whether a landscape will be called wilderness or something else is as important as how it will be managed. For this collaboration to work, some WSAs had to become wilderness areas, and some had to be released—or close to it. That would be easier if the WSAs were large enough to accommodate wilderness and some other form of management, or if there were a sufficient number of WSAs under discussion that some could be designated as wilderness and others managed for different purposes. In Carbon County, with only four relatively small WSAs neither condition exits. Reaching agreement was not going to be easy.

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Most of the committee’s first year was spent collecting information about the four Carbon County WSAs, touring them on foot and by small aircraft, and gathering input from people throughout the county. Over this time, the committee developed a shared understanding of the characteristics and character of the four WSAs. They also refined and shared their own values and beliefs about these areas, building rapport and trust. The Carbon County committee agreed that an acceptable solution would need to meet all parties’ most important interests, so the group spent time talking about the principles and beliefs their interests are based on.

“The slow, careful process where people get to hear about others’ views and the reasons behind them was critical,” said Espy.

“Most people have been able to express their interests pretty well,” said Parsons. “The ability to put our interests on the board and see that we aren’t that far apart was really interesting.”

“We are a very positive group,” added Correll. “We’ve been on field trips together and we talk together on breaks and in between meetings. We have been able to have one-on-one conversations even though we disagree. That’s what has helped us work well together.”

Rocks with water pouring in-bertween in stream with rocks in foreground

But not all committee members felt that their interests were taken to heart by everyone. “I have done my best to communicate my values-based appreciation of wilderness and its importance,” said Wilbert, “but I don’t think that other members really see my viewpoint. I feel there is far more acknowledgement of the validity of agricultural interests than conservation interests.”

From their review of the WSAs and their “slow, careful process,” the committee generated a range of management options for each WSA such as designation as wilderness, conservation with directed management, or release to general management by the BLM. With all the options on the table, negotiations began in earnest in June.

Negotiation implies conflict and disagreement. It requires intense interaction among committee members—many of whom are friends and neighbors—that can feel adversarial at times. This made many on the Carbon County committee uneasy. As the group’s facilitator, my role was to steer them toward agreements based on all parties’ interests. I aimed to help each negotiator maximize his or her gains while allowing the other parties to make gains as well.

In June, they settled on 13 different proposals for the four WSAs. Wilderness designation was on the table for each WSA as were other options. To explore areas of agreement, they took straw polls identifying components of each proposal that committee members could support or not. The straw polling revealed that even though some directed management proposals could result in wilderness-like management, the addition of lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System was necessary for some conservation members. To reach consensus, the committee needed to agree where and how much wilderness would be part of the mix of land management designations.

As the spring winds began to dry the Carbon County landscape to its typical brown summer hue, the committee honed management options into about a dozen succinct proposals. In their July meeting, they negotiated trade-offs between WSAs, adjusted boundaries of special management areas, and debated the addition of wilderness areas. The character of the negotiation changed from that of creative cooperation to an arduous search for agreement.

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wildflowers

In the end, the committee reached tentative consensus on designation recommendations for three of the four WSAs. They proposed that Encampment River Canyon be designated wilderness minus 3.88 acres surrounding an irrigation point of diversion on Miner Creek. Prospect Mountain WSA would also garner a wilderness designation, and an additional 1,200 acres of BLM land north of the WSA would achieve special management area designation to limit motorized access and energy development. The committee proposed that the Bennett Mountains WSA become a special management area prohibiting energy development but allowing some motorized access. For the Ferris Mountains, the largest of the four WSAs, the committee agreed to disagree. Its status will not change from WSA as a result of this process. In October the committee submitted its recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners for approval. Once approved, the recommendations will eventually make their way to Congress though it remains to be seen whether or how quickly Wyoming’s Congressional delegation can get such a proposal passed.

The committee was relieved to find that they could actually come to agreement. “I wasn’t sure until the last meeting when people began to compromise and look at the best option for the management of that resource instead of drawing lines in the sand,” Espy said. “I saw people giving and taking. This couldn’t have happened without spending the past year meeting and building faith and trust.”

“It was more difficult than I anticipated and took more time than I thought it would, but it just takes time to do this kind of work,” said Parsons. “I think this is our best shot for getting a locally driven designation for our public lands. We complain about top-down management of public lands and here is our opportunity to work from the local level up. I think we’ve been able to do that.”

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Carbon County Wilderness Study Areas

purple and pink field of wildflowers

Encampment River Canyon WSA: 4,547 acres

Spanning the Encampment River, this WSA provides superb fishing, hunting, backpacking, horseback riding, and hiking opportunities. It is easily accessed from campgrounds and cabins near Encampment, Wyoming. The popular Encampment River trail follows the canyon upriver through the WSA, leading to the nearby Encampment River Wilderness.

Prospect Mountain WSA: 1,145 acres

Abutting the Platte River Wilderness on the Medicine Bow National Forest, this WSA is forested with lodgepole pine and aspen, offering crucial winter habitat for the Snowy Range elk herd. Outside of hunting, most recreational use is confined to a primitive public road that forms the WSA’s northern boundary and provides boating access to the North Platte River.

Bennett Mountain WSA: 6,003 acres

A high plateau rises above Seminoe Reservoir with numerous tributary draws and steep rocky ledges and walls. Grass and sagebrush grow between pockets of pine, aspen, and willows.  Recreation access is limited since private land surrounds the WSA except for a state-owned section near its northeastern boundary. The mountain offers secluded recreation sites, but they are small, and visitors may overlap as they travel between canyons.

Ferris Mountains WSA: 22,245 acres

Undulating bands of light-gray limestone along the mountains’ steep south face resemble the cartoon trail of a hopping kangaroo.  Ferris Peak, the highest point in the Great Divide Basin, rises 3,000 feet from the valley floor.  Steep slopes, deep canyons, and meadowlands define the mountain range. The rocky cliffs provide excellent nesting habitat for many raptors, particularly prairie falcons and golden eagles. The area also holds habitat for elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep.

By Steve Smutko

Steve Smutko holds the Spicer Chair for Collaborative Practice at the University of Wyoming Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and is a public process facilitator in the Ruckelshaus Institute, publisher of this magazine.

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