Wilderness Study Area

The Palisades and Shoal Creek wilderness study areas, outlined in yellow, are at the center of a debate about creating new designated wilderness in Teton County. A new motorized-advocacy group has formed in opposition to the idea, and to safeguard areas they like to snowmobile.

Taking a cue from well-oiled environmental advocacy groups that swarm Jackson Hole, motorized recreation enthusiasts are mobilizing in defense of snowmobiling, dirt biking and activities like heli-skiing in the Palisades wilderness study area.

Fueling the activism, formalized by the nascent group Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands, is the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, which has the potential to create a new wilderness area in the mountainous country rising over southwest Jackson Hole.

A resolute resistance to that idea was on display March 8 when a fervent crowd replete with Klim jackets and camouflage hats rallied in a Virginian Lodge conference room.

“Drop the WSA,” said Wade Kauffman, a Driggs, Idaho, resident who helped form Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands. “We have such small terrain, such small acreage for us to access and utilize.”

The group calculated that only 11 percent of Teton County’s land area is available for snowmobiling. The balance, it said, is off limits because of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and the Teton, Gros Ventre, Jedediah Smith and Winegar Hole wilderness areas.

“Let’s fight for what we have,” Kauffman said to hearty applause.

Decorum lacked at times during the evening meeting. Shouts of “No compromise!” bellowed from the audience. Professional conservationists who attended were spoken over when they tried to say their piece, and one man’s proclamation, that the thirst for more wilderness was selfish and aimed only at creating more environmental jobs, was a particular crowd pleaser.

“You’re the largest user group,” High Mountain Heli-Skiing owner John Shick told the crowd. “You’re in control, but only if you speak up. And you should do it now. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

The Snake River and Gros Ventre range landscapes that snowmobilers are concerned about is not wilderness but a “wilderness study area” that the Bridger-Teton National Forest is legally required to manage in a wild condition. The same classification exists northwest of Bondurant, in the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area.

Wilderness study areas are an in-limbo land status that the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative is seeking to do away with by coming up with collaborative, community-based recommendations. Wyoming’s congressional delegates have vowed to make the exercise have real meaning by introducing a legislative lands bill to reflect the will of counties.

Wilderness itself, where mankind is supposed to be just a visitor on the landscape, is a land classification as protective as there is. It prohibits the use of mechanized vehicles and tools, even including mountain bikes. In the Palisades and Shoal Creek areas, though otherwise managed similarly to wilderness, motorized access is allowed.

Long process

The formation of the multi-use advocacy group comes amid the long process of a Teton County advisory committee crafting its Wyoming Public Lands Initiative recommendation. Advisory committee member Mike Mielke, representing the Jackson Hole Snow Devils, is a founder of Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands.

It remains to be seen how the newfound motorized advocacy effort will influence the committee’s progress in coming up with a consensus recommendation for Teton County. The University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute, whose staff could not be reached for an interview Tuesday, is facilitating the process.

Defining “consensus” is being left to participating counties, said Gregory Cowan, the natural resources staff attorney for the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, which conceived the initiative.

“Consensus does not necessarily mean unanimity,” Cowan said.

Committee members — of which Teton County has 21 — were appointed as representatives of interest groups. Members, Cowan said, have a responsibility to be candid about the viewpoints of their constituency.

“But at the same time, you’re going to the table and you have a responsibility upon signing up that you’re willing to collaborate,” Cowan said. “It means that you’re willing to compromise. You’re going into it with eyes wide open.”

Mielke declined an interview, deferring to Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands co-founder and Mosquito Creek resident Jesse Combs.

Not unwilling to talk

Combs said the group “is definitely not wanting” to give up any of the 11 percent of Teton County that it calculated is open to snowmobiling. When asked, however, he would not affirm an unwillingness to compromise.

“We’re in our infancy, and I think we’d be in a better position to really give you a concrete answer on that in a few months,” Combs said. “We’re not a bunch of stubborn rednecks unwilling to come to the table.”

Committee members and Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance employee Siva Sundaresan is one person who hopes there’s no true impasse.

“What we’ve been taught about the interest-based collaborative decision-making process is that there are opportunities for everyone to win,” Sundaresan said. “Without going through that process, it’s impossible to know if a consensus position is possible.

“I think it’s too early to say that we should pack our bags and go home,” he said.

Jackson physician and advisory committee member Bruce Hayse said the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative model has proven frustrating to navigate.

“Instead of any appreciation for wild country or natural landscapes, they have ended up focusing on this user-group model,” Hayse said. “All it does is encourage people to focus on grabbing what’s mine and what I like to do and where I like to do it.”

It would be “antithetical” to the spirit of the initiative, Hayse said, for motorized advocates to draw a line in the sand on their position.

Already protected

Fearing a net loss of wilderness-quality lands, some environmentalists would like to see the Public Lands Initiative committee broaden its geographic focus. Phil Hocker, a former valley resident and Sierra Club activist who lobbied for the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act that created the Palisades study area, called the current approach a “zero sum game” that “won’t work.”

“The only space that’s being discussed in Teton County is two areas that are already protected by law,” Hocker said.

Teton County encompasses 112 square miles of the Palisades. The initiative is structured so that Teton County has no say on what becomes of another 97 square miles of the study area that lie within Lincoln County, whose commission has been hostile to the idea of wilderness. Another 96 square miles of adjoining Palisades “recommended wilderness” are located on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, mostly in Idaho, and Teton County’s advisory committee similarly has little ability to influence the fate of that land.

The conservation contingent on the committee, Sundaresan said, is exploring other areas that could be recategorized or recommended as wilderness through the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative process. While the Wyoming Range’s Grayback Roadless Area and Leidy Highlands have been posited, no formal proposal has been brought to the committee.

“We’re hoping to do so pretty soon,” Sundaresan said.

The Teton County advisory committee meets at 2 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month in the Teton County Commissioners’ chambers. The next gathering is set for April 12.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, env@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGenviro.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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