As Wyoming residents gather this week to weigh in on how to manage federal public land in the Rock Springs and Red Desert area, they’ll grapple with the fate of some of Wyoming’s most storied landscapes — the sage grouse “Golden Triangle,” the Hoback-to-Red-Desert mule deer migration route, the Steamboat Mountain buffalo jump and the Pony Express Trail.
The federal government’s preferred plan for 3.6 million acres of southwestern Wyoming would protect shifting sand dunes, elk birthing grounds, Colorado River cutthroat trout habitat, ancestral Native American art and even the grave of a 19th-century bandit murdered over a dog. But it would cost thousands of jobs and inhibit economic activity, a draft proposal states.
Under the revised resource management plan for the Rock Springs District, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes special rules to govern use in 17 “areas of critical environmental concern.” The BLM has analyzed and mapped ACECs from Buckskin Crossing of the Big Sandy River south to Red Creek on the Utah border, documenting their value and fragility in 1,340 pages of analyses.
New ACEC regulations would apply to about 1.3 million acres according to a draft environmental impact statement that will be the subject of state-sponsored meetings Friday and Saturday in several southwestern Wyoming communities. WyoFile estimates new regulations would encumber about 30% of the district’s 3.6 million acres given that one ACEC aimed at protecting mule deer migration routes overlies several other critical areas.
Widely lambasted by state officials, and much of the local public, the RMP calls for restricting oil and gas wells and off-road driving, among other things, to limit “irreparable damage” to the sensitive terrain, habitat and relics.
Starting at 2 p.m. Friday in Rock Springs, the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute convenes a series of workshops “to shape an acceptable, well-reasoned final proposal.” Called by Gov. Mark Gordon, the meetings include gatherings Saturday in Green River and Farson. Gordon said the workshops will inform his comments on the BLM plan by Jan. 17. The BLM will finalize its plan after that.
Of the four frameworks considered for the future of federal public land in the area, the BLM prefers the option that “conserves the most land area for physical, biological, and cultural resources,” the federal agency states, and puts the most restrictions on drilling and mining.
Oil and gas, mining, renewable energy and grazing interests would find the conservation alternative “the least favorable,” the draft says. “Quiet recreation stakeholders would view this alternative favorably but [off-highway vehicle] and developed recreation stakeholders would find it least favorable.”
Areas of critical environmental concern appear to be the principal driver of the controversial restrictions. The ACECs would affect a regional economy that relies on the continued development and exploitation of seemingly endless swaths of sagebrush and desert cut by the occasional stream, creek and river.
“Socioeconomic impacts would be the largest [under the conservation alternative] due to reduced mineral development,” the BLM states. Under the current BLM management regime, the region generates $1.73 billion in economic activity.
Under the conservation alternative, that 2016 figure could drop to $827 million, a $907 million, 52% decline. The oil and gas industry would shoulder much of the impact, according to the draft EIS the BLM released earlier this summer.
The agency estimates 2,920 petroleum industry jobs could be lost from the 3,981 supported under current regulations. The BLM land supported a total of 5,435 jobs in 2016 under present land-use rules; the conservation alternative would support 2,515.
Land available for grazing — currently 3.5 million of the 3.6 million acres managed by the plan — would be reduced by about 0.02%. The conservation alternative would minimize forage destruction, the draft says, without costing the 133 cowboys or herders employed for stock grazing their jobs.
The BLM is tasked with managing its holdings for multiple use and sustained yield — “ensuring the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” The Rock Springs RMP is an early test of the proposed nationwide Public Lands Rule, which seeks, for the first time, to put conservation on an equal footing as other uses.
In the local Rock Springs plan, the agency must balance the desires of its constituency of 333 million Americans against the socio-economic impacts to Wyoming residents — some 581,381 of them — who make up less than two-tenths of a percent of the nation’s citizenry.
Headless outlaw in upturned grave
To qualify as an area of critical environmental concern, lands in the BLM’s Rock Springs district must have “a significant historic, cultural, or scenic value,” a fish or wildlife resource or other natural system or process, or a natural hazard.
Archeological, religious or cultural sites, habitat for endangered, sensitive or threatened species or land essential for maintaining species diversity can qualify as areas of critical concern. Natural systems like rare plant communities or geologic features also can qualify, as can flood zones, landslides and dangerous cliffs.
Critical environmental areas must also have a special worth, consequence, meaning, distinctiveness or cause for concern, especially when compared to similar resources, the BLM states. Fragile, sensitive, unique and irreplaceable places and landscapes, wildlife and vegetation, among other things, meet this definition.
The agency outlined the areas of critical environmental concern in an interactive Google Earth map that’s part of the environmental review. (Click on “DEIS- proposed ACEC” text on the page reached by the link above.)
Among the fragile features of the area that would be conserved are golden eagle nests on Steamboat Mountain, about 353 square miles of mule deer migration habitat and the winter home to 1,000 elk.
The Golden Triangle northeast of Farson, proposed as an ACEC, holds the highest density sage grouse habitat on Earth, according to one biologist. One breeding-ground lek there hosts some 300 strutting male sage grouse every spring.
The BLM even recognizes the grave of William Pidgeon, whom Butch Cassidy rejected as a member of his train-robbing Wild Bunch, according to an 1881 article in Genealogy Research of the West. Relegated to herding, Pidgeon had a dust-up with Ike Lee who got the drop on him and blew Pidgeon out the door of a sheep wagon with his .44.
Pidgeon never rested. Unknowns dug him up, cut off his head, boiled it and sold it to a doctor as a specimen.