By Mike Koshmrl
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney won’t receive written pushback from Teton County about a bill that would loosen land protection in the Snake River Range and prevent the Bridger-Teton National Forest from inventorying new wilderness.
Teton County commissioners had considered sending their congressional representative, who owns a home in Wilson, a letter opposing the “Restoring Local Input and Access to Public Lands Act.” But on Monday, in a 3-to-2 vote, they opted not to. The risk of alienating neighboring counties that supported the bill was too great, Commissioner Smokey Rhea said.
“I just don’t think now’s the time to pick a fight, which is what I think this would end up being with our neighboring counties,” Rhea said. “That’s how I think our neighbors will take it.”
Commissioners Paul Vogelheim and Natalia Macker agreed letter writing would not be the best strategy.
Cheney’s bill, introduced in September, would “release” all wilderness study areas — which is a protected class of land — within the boundaries of Lincoln, Sweetwater and Big Horn counties, at those counties’ urgings. The Palisades Wilderness Study Area, located between Teton Pass and the Snake River Canyon, would become roughly split into two as a result, because Lincoln County’s southerly portion would instead be managed for “multiple use and sustained yield.”
The legislation also proposes eliminating “land with wilderness characteristics” from all BLM- and Forest Service-managed lands in Wyoming and banning those agencies from inventorying any more. Last, it prohibits creating new wilderness or wilderness study areas unless they’re created by federal statute.
Commission Chairman Mark Newcomb first drafted the letter to Cheney, then softened the language at the board’s urging after a discussion last week. The changes, however, didn’t sway any of his colleagues.
“I fundamentally believe we should be saying something,” Newcomb said.
It’s a break from precedent, according to one former resident, for county commissioners to not speak up about a federal lands bill that affects land within their jurisdiction.
“It certainly was the tradition of the board when I was working with them on letters about wilderness in the ’70s and ’80s,” longtime Sierra Club volunteer Phil Hocker said.
“I wish they had been able to find language that they could agree on,” he said, “because if this bill passes, it’s going to hurt Teton County.”
Although Cheney’s bill cleared the House Committee on Natural Resources, its prospects for becoming law look slim, especially with Democrats gaining majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January. The legislation-tracking website GovTrack.us puts its prospects of passage at 1 percent.
Commissioner Vogelheim espoused the approach of sitting back and hoping the bill dies. An opposition letter, he said, would inflame relations with Lincoln, Sweetwater and Bighorn county commissioners, and it could also give Cheney ammunition to add in Teton County out of spite. Instead, he planned to call her office to talk it over.
“Does she have the power to amend a bill like this and add Teton County?” Vogelheim said in an interview. “Absolutely. The risk was too great. I really appreciate the majority of commissioners saying no [to the letter].”