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Memo: West Fork Dam ‘does not align well’ with federal policy

A critical assessment by a Forest Service specialist in 2022 cast doubts on whether a proposed and controversial reservoir meets federal standards.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addresses an audience during a trip to Jackson Hole in 2015. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

Wyoming’s plan to construct the West Fork Dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest “does not align well” with federal policy and management plans, a forest official wrote in a 2022 brief intended for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The Medicine Bow environmental policy analyst who evaluated the state’s plan for the 264-foot high dam also said the proposal might not meet a U.S. Forest Service public-interest standard necessary for a land swap that would enable dam construction.

The critical assessment was penned as Medicine Bow staff prepared a briefing paper on Wyoming’s plan to construct the dam and its 130-acre reservoir in Carbon County to serve fewer than 100 irrigators who want more late-season water. Forest officials sought staffers’ input on the proposed development above the Little Snake River.

Medicine Bow officials were preparing the late-2022 briefing for regional and Washington D.C. officials, unnamed VIPs and Secretary Vilsack, according to documents obtained by WyoFile through a records request.

In an internal Medicine Bow email, forest environmental policy analyst Matt Schweich asked that the briefing paper state that “[t]he Forest is concerned that the State’s current preferred concept does not align well with Forest Service policy and the Forest plan, that it may not be in the public interest, and is likely to be highly controversial with the public.”

Ninety-six percent of comments on the plan opposed the project, a WyoFile tally of submissions showed. Criticism ranged from the project’s environmental impacts to Wyoming’s rosy analysis of public benefits and the state’s willingness to fund the bulk of the project for the benefit of private irrigators.

An ongoing environmental review necessary to advance the Wyoming project will determine whether the dam plan meets federal policies and the Medicine Bow management plan. A federal-state land exchange necessary for construction must be found to be in the public interest. An environmental impact statement and associated reviews of the proposal have been delayed once, and their completion date remains uncertain.

A Medicine Bow spokesman said Schweich’s opinion does not reflect the official position of the agency, which will only be revealed through the environmental impact statement.

Last puzzle piece

The Forest Service, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working to complete the EIS in a process largely obscured from public view. The emails, however, provide another peek into the thinking of Forest Service specialists regarding the merits of the controversial project.

In another internal discussion previously reported by WyoFile, a Medicine Bow hydrologist expressed worry that the dam proposal wasn’t being thoroughly vetted. Medicine Bow spokesman Aaron Voos dismissed that worry last year, characterizing the criticism as healthy agency discussion.

Schweich added his newly revealed assessment of the dam plan in a Sept. 26, 2022 email exchange as Medicine Bow staffers were preparing a “Hot topic” report for leadership, including Vilsack. Fully four years before that, Wyoming water developers had settled on the size of the dam, the capacity and size of the reservoir and the site of the complex. Wyoming has not deviated significantly from those plans.

Water developers want to construct an $80 million, 264-foot-high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek south of Rawlins. This artist’s conception shows what the reservoir would look like in a Google Earth rendition. (Wyoming Water Development Office)

A month before Schweich wrote his 2022 assessment, Wyoming had provided the last piece of the puzzle, telling Medicine Bow officials the state would seek 1,762 acres of forest land in an exchange that would enable construction of the dam and reservoir. Jenifer Scoggin, director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, provided that land-swap information to Medicine Bow officials in August 2022, according to a letter she wrote later that year.

Medicine Bow officials appeared to have known the size of the dam and reservoir, their location and the federal acreage Wyoming sought when the officials asked Schweich for his assessment.

A month after Schweich responded, Wyoming submitted its formal proposal to the Medicine Bow for a land exchange and dam construction.

Regardless how well-informed Schweich was when he made his 2022 assessment, spokesman Voos said it was unclear at that time exactly what the state intended.

“[T]he internal, draft email of Hot Topics updates [to which Schweich contributed] is prior to receipt of any formal land exchange proposal from the State,” Voos wrote WyoFile. “At the time, multiple informal discussions were taking place surrounding conceptual ideas.

“Since it was unclear what the State’s future use of any current National Forest System land might have been at that time,” Voos wrote, “then yes, there was the possibility for misalignment with our policy and Plan.”

WyoFile obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request. Although the environmental impact statement is being written largely out of public view, the public had an opportunity to weigh in on the issue before the analysis began. People will be able to comment on the review when it is completed.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.