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Hard Fought Battle Over Teton Valley Public Lands Ends in Stalemate

A view of Alpine, WY.  Much of the nearby land is classified as wilderness study area. Wikimedia Commons photo.

From Bear’s Ears to ANWR, land-use policy has been a hotly contested topic in recent years. However, not all battles over public land draw big money from corporations and political organizations. If you’re interested in the debate surrounding wilderness conservation and recreational access to public land, here is a much less-publicized issue which you’ll probably care about, no matter which camp you fall into.

Related: As Trump Kills Bears Ears Protections, What Can We Learn?

Over the past two years, residents of Teton County have been divided by a debate over the future of two local tracts of Forest Service-managed public land. These two tracts, namely the Palisades and Shoal Creek wilderness study areas (WSAs), have been determined to exhibit the characteristics of Wilderness as laid out in the Wilderness Act of 1964 (naturalness, opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation, size of at least 5,000 acres, having ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value), and have been awaiting an official designation by Congress since the 1970s.

The Grayback Wilderness, one of the original wilderness areas suggested in the '70s. Public domain photo.

Under current legislation, both areas are open for motorized and non-motorized recreation, and are popular destinations for mountain bikers, dirt bikers, and snowmobilers. However, in 2016 the Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) organized the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI) in an effort to finalize the designations of the 45 WSAs in the state. The Initiative calls for each county to form an advisory committee which would recommend usage designations for their local public lands.

A map of Teton County showing the location of the WSAs in question. WPLI photo.

After months of back and forth, the Teton County WPLI Advisory Committee voted Tuesday morning on a proposal which committee member Rob Shaul described as “[capturing] the collaborative spirit and intent of WPLI.” He claimed that the plan, which would create 228 square miles of new wilderness and 617 square miles of motorized vehicle-accessible conservation areas, “addresses the major threats to Teton County’s wildlife and backcountry, resolves the Palisades and Shoal Creek [wilderness study areas] and represents a bold and innovative way forward.”

Related: Watch Eric Porter Take a Spin Down Teton Pass's Lithium

The plan was strongly opposed by motorized and mechanized vehicle enthusiasts who organized under the umbrella of the “Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands.” They stood outside the building in which the Committee was meeting holding signs urging the Committee to vote against the new legislation.

Perhaps due to the strong turnout by opponents of the plan, it was ultimately rejected, with the final vote pitting five supporters on the Committee against the twelve opposed. After many attempts at reaching consensus, the group has at long last admitted defeat, voting unanimously against passing along a recommendation to Congress regarding the designation of new wilderness.

Some were pleased by the non-consensus vote, and some were not. Kevin Kavanagh, President of the Teton Freedom Riders, a local mountain biking organization, sees this as the best possible outcome of a deeply flawed process:

The process was flawed from its inception, the Board was stacked, and ultimately the charter was breached. Seeing the direction things were heading, the non-consensus vote is favorable to our community. The Palisades is an urban interface and a natural resource that spans three counties and two states. This was not just about Teton County, Wyoming; it was about the people, the culture and the economy of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Alternatively, Steve Kilpatrick, Executive Director of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation sees the lack of a recommendation as a missed opportunity:

We were given the opportunity to provide Congress with a local community-based recommendation on how some of our public lands will be managed. I consistently hear the cry for “place-based” public land management. Without agreeing on a “middle ground” recommendation, we effectively rejected a “place-based” opportunity and will be faced with a Forest Service decision based on input from across the nation. Thus, both sides are gambling on a win at the federal and potentially litigation level. And, someone loses.
Ultimately, the biggest loser may well be wildlife because the focus will be on two relatively small landscapes, Palisades and Shoal Creek WSAs, vs all of Teton County. Wildlife need large intact landscapes which is what the middle-ground proposal focused on – i.e. all of Teton County. We lost the opportunity for an encompassing ecosystem approach.

However you feel about wilderness conservation and motorized/mechanized access to public land, this tale highlights the importance of public involvement in the decision-making process. Despite the fact that no consensus was reached, the level of engagement from people on all sides of the debate ensured that no recommendation was made to misrepresent the community’s opinions. If you, like the residents of Teton County, want to make your voice heard in any decision-making process, make sure to get out and vote on Nov. 6!

About The Author

stash member Zack Skovron

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, now living in Jackson, WY. I’m an avid skier, biker, hiker, climber, and fisherman. Outside of sports, my major interests focus on public policy surrounding land use and energy systems.