From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 106, Number 18 - April 30, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Northern Rockies bill protested

by Stephen Crane

Were it to receive federal approval, many of the lakes and forests of Sublette County would be off limits to motorized boats, ATVs, snowmobiles and vehicles.

“I think the likelihood of this passing Congress is slim to none,” said U.S. Represenative Cynthia Lummis’ press secretary, Ryan Taylor. “And Rep. Lummis will be working with both democrats and republicans across the West to ensure that this bill never sees the light of day.”

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), currently known as H.R. 980, is a piece of legislation that is sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).

“NREPA differs from traditional state-by-state wilderness bills by offering a variety of designations that work in concert to achieve one goal — the protection of entire functioning ecosystems,” said Rep. Maloney.

Almost 70 other U.S. Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors, though only two are from the one of the five states that would be affected by the bill.

Those two are representatives from Washington, a state that has the smallest amount of affected land at 500,000 acres.

Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Montana are the other four states, with lands totaling almost 23 million acres.

In Wyoming, the NREPA would affect 5 million acres, including around 900,000 acres in Sublette County alone. These areas would include Fremont Lake, Half Moon Lake, Willow Lake, New Fork Lake, Green River Lakes and large segments of the Wyoming Range.

The NREPA seeks to establish federal wilderness designations for these areas, which would restrict the use of motorized vehicles and would also restore other areas to “roadless conditions,” though it would still allow other recreational activities, “including hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and bird watching,” according to Maloney.

This year is not the first time the NREPA has come before a congressional committee.

“It’s been reintroduced every two years since ’92, including this year,” said Michael Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR), a Montana group that helped author the bill.

Based on the opinions of scientists and economists, AWR helped create the bill with hopes of protecting endangered species and creating jobs.

“(The Northern Rockies is) the only place in North America where we have the same species as when Europeans first arrived,” said Garrity. “So it’s an ecosystem bill, designed to protect the Northern Rockies ecosystem.”

“This whole concept of ecosystem protection came out of this discussion that the (national) parks couldn’t sustain grizzly bears,” said Steve Kelly, who has been a member of AWR from early on and took part in the original drafting. “This bill is visionary and looks forward for generations. And that (ecosystem) science is being used today, more and more all the time.”

The NREPA has not found much support in the 17 years it has bounced in and out of Congress, never once making it out of committee and onto the congressional floor.

On May 5, a subcommittee of the Natural Resource Committee will hold a hearing on the issue, which is the first of many hurdles the bill would need to overcome before becoming official.

“That is a subcommittee of which Rep. Lummis is a member,” said Taylor. “And she’ll definitely make sure Wyoming’s voice is heard loud and clear on this.”

Local opposition to the bill has been building in recent days, and a “First Coalition Meeting” is scheduled for Thursday, April 30, at the Pinedale High School Auditorium, for “everyone concerned with the wilderness act,” according to a press release.

“There’s a lot of people who still don’t know what’s going on with this protection act,” said Jason Ray, a local resident who’s organizing the group. “So the primary focus is to inform a lot of people, and our main purpose is to keep western Wyoming as a multiple-use area.”

Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman will also be heading to Washington D.C. in time for the May 5 hearing, after being selected by western Wyoming’s Coalition of Local Government to represent the group.

“What we hope to accomplish is to see the committee take the vote to not pass the bill out of committee,” said Bousman. “My primary concern is that it would destroy the economic diversity of Sublette County. If we lose all of our ability for recreation, there’s huge problems.

“It’s an example of people coming up with these silly ideas who have no clue what they’re doing, and the impact it would have on the ground.”

Not so, says Maloney, who was approached by AWR some years ago.

“These people in the (Northern Rockies) region went to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to write this bill,” she said. “Then, when those local advocates went to their elected officials, I’m told that no one had the vision or courage to sponsor this bill.

“So people in the region had to seek out other legislators to support their vision.”

Proponents of the bill hoped to allay some of the other local concerns as well, and would still like to see it move forward.

“If an area has overwhelming motorized use, it probably wouldn’t qualify as wilderness,” said Garrity. “That’s why Congress holds a hearing, to discuss issues like this. But we do think these inventoried wilderness areas should be protected.

“And we’ve always held the position that this bill would get amended as it moved through Congress.”

Another local concern was the plan that 6,000 miles of road within the designated wilderness area be reclaimed to their natural state.

“Those are in Idaho and northwest Montana,” said Kelly. “It has nothing to do with Wyoming.”

Regardless, many people in Sublette County and throughout Wyoming are skeptical of the bill, as well as its congressional sponsors.

“This regurgitated bill flies in the face of that (local management) process by failing to seek input from a single community, county, state or member of Congress affected by the proposed legislation,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis, in a statement responding to the bill.

“East Coast politicians would do well to follow the West’s lead on proper land management, not throw rocks from their Manhattan glass penthouses.”

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