Wyoming County Commissioners Call Halt to Wilderness Designations

Published August 29, 2011

County commissioners in Park County, Wyoming have decided not to recommend any new county lands be designated as wilderness areas to be managed by the federal government through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The decision reached in the August commissioners’ meeting has put them at odds with many conservation groups that would like 51 new areas to be protected by the federal government and placed off limits to drilling, grazing, or development. The commissioners say they represent the majority of voters in Park County. 

Already Enough Wilderness

“We don’t think we need any more wilderness,” said Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden. “We already have some areas in the county designated as Wilderness Study Areas [federal lands without human improvements or habitation], and we felt like the federal government should act or withdraw their designation on these areas before adding more,” says Tilden.

Steve Klein, a staff attorney and research counsel with the Wyoming Liberty Group, a public policy organization in Cheyenne, Wyoming, agrees, noting the Wilderness Study Areas are basically untouchable until the federal government acts on them. 

“It’s safe to assume the feds will never get around to it or will eventually designate those areas as wilderness. In the meantime, there’s no point in permanently restricting activity on even more land. Let Uncle Sam finish up old tasks before giving him a new one,” Klein explained.

Chasing Away Jobs, Revenues

One area so designated is McCullough Peak, which constitutes about 5,000 acres and has been off limits since the early 1970s. According to Tilden, in spring 2010 the Bill Barrett Corporation held an oil lease there and applied for a drilling permit. Environmental activists presented two sets of concerns about drilling for oil there, and the Barrett Corp. subsequently satisfied each of the concerns. After the activists presented a third set of concerns, the Barrett Corp. decided to give up and produce oil someplace where they were wanted.

Along with grazing, oil and gas development plays a crucial role in the Park County economy. Oil and gas producers already pay approximately 60 percent of the county’s tax intake, and new drilling technology is setting up oil and gas producers to be even more productive and assume an even greater share of the county’s tax burden, Tilden observed.

“We couldn’t see cutting that potential revenue off forever. The environmentalists just want to make it harder and harder for people to use the land out here. There’s no question tourism plays a big role in all of this. However, tourism jobs are seasonal and low-paying. In contrast, oil and gas jobs pay well and enable people to make a good living, raise a family, and buy a house,” Tilden noted. 

‘It’s Never Enough’ for Activists

H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, explained the federal government does not need any more land since it already owns 110 million acres of wilderness.

“That’s enough,” said Burnett. “We can’t have the dead hand of the grave ruling the future. We’re already shafting future generations with all of this debt we’re saddling them with, and now the federal government wants to foreclose the use of potentially valuable resources from them?” 

The federal government has more wilderness than it can properly manage, Burnett says. 

“There is plenty of pristine wilderness for hardcore hikers, campers, and hunters to explore, especially when one includes wilderness study areas and designated roadless areas in the national forests. These are de facto wilderness areas. Why make more land off limits to future generations?” Burnett asked. 

“The land is currently being used for grazing or mineral production. More importantly, the people closest to the land see no reason to declare it off-limits and cut off future tax revenues for the cities and counties. So how much is enough? For environmentalists, it’s never enough until you lock everyone off the land forever,” Burnett explained.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Texas.