Legislators discuss proposed National Conservation Area
Casper – “A National Conservation Area is very much a National Park designation in BLM lands,” said Dennis Ellis, government relations advisor with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, during the Sept. 5 meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Federal Natural Resource Management. “It walks and talks like a National Park, but rather than putting it in the hands of the National Park Service, it is in BLM lands.”
Ellis, along with Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna, Wyoming Outdoor Council Legislative Advocate Richard Garrett and Fremont County Commissioner Doug Thompson, testified on the various aspects of establishing a National Conservation Area (NCA) in Wyoming.
Garrett started testimony by emphasizing that the Wyoming Outdoor Council sees aesthetic and sentimental value in the Red Desert, marking the passion for Wyoming’s environment.
“The Wyoming Outdoor Council was founded by a gentleman named Tom Bell,” explained Garrett. “He came home to Wyoming after WWII to recover and rejuvenate, and he found solace in the Red Desert.”
“Tom loves open spaces, and I think we all do,” he continued. “Open spaces are one of the most important features that people in the state of Wyoming enjoy.”
Further, Garrett marked the landscape as iconic and worth the conversations started in discussions to establish a NCA.
“We know that we need to reach out to others to expand this conversation, and we are looking forward to doing that,” Garrett commented. “We know we need to work with industry in this conversation. The conversation can only be meaningful if all are included, if ideas and concerns are shared openly and if the rights of all – property rights, leasing rights and grazing rights – are acknowledged and respected.”
When questioned by the legislators on the differences between a NCA and a wilderness area, Garrett explained that NCAs do not close off motorized vehicle traffic and does not preclude the use of existing roads or infrastructure. Additionally, he noted that private properties are not subject to the designation.
“Going forward, there would be no additional construction or leasing available within those lands designated as a NCA,” he continued.
However, there is uncertainty about whether current grazing leases would be renewed if they expired after a NCA is designated.
Legislators in general were uneasy about the uncertainty in the ability to continue multiple use.
Ellis noted that Anadarko operates largely in the area proposed for the NCA.
“The proposed boundary areas of this NCA include 2.5 million acres of federal lands. Of that, 225,000 acres of private lands are included,” he said. “It can be problematic when we don’t have access to those lands.”
Ellis further noted that the issues of access can be demonstrated with the experience of Grand Teton National Park, cautioning legislators to utilize past experience in considering the action.
“Seeing a map like this is not unlike seeing a map from the city planner that has a roundabout on top of your house,” he continued of the proposed NCA boundary area. “It is alarming that someone would want to take our property for their purposes.”
When lands are taken using eminent domain, Ellis added, at least owners are compensated at fair market value. With the designation of a NCA, he noted that those private landowners are limited in their opportunities.
“A NCA designation sterilizes the uses of the lands,” Ellis said. “We are intermingled in the BLM in the manner that what happens on BLM lands happens on our land.”
In addition, the designation limits other uses, such as hunting, which provides further negative effects.
“It doesn’t allow grazing leases, people cannot go off of established roads, and it doesn’t allow for any mining or alternative energy projects,” Ellis commented. “A quarter of a million acres of private lands are going to be affected.”
Senator Jim Anderson of Douglas mentioned that with recent discoveries of lithium and unlimited energy potential, there is a potential for economic loss and negative impacts to individual companies and the state with the designations.
A livestock view
From the agriculture perspective, Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and rancher utilizing Red Desert lands, noted, “We believe we can coexist within and maintain the scenic and historical values with energy development on the Red Desert. They are all compatible when properly done, and we are committed to doing our part.”
For grazers, he commented that the designation would not allow further development of the lands, meaning those with livestock would be unable to utilize the best and latest in grazing science to best utilize the land.
“Grazing is not what it was 100 years ago. It is more sophisticated,” Magagna explained. “Grazing involves short term duration use, the need to build fences and for water improvement. With a NCA, producers would not be allowed to do what they need to for survival.”
Sheep and cattle producers in the state would be seriously threatened, he added, noting that access concerns in a NCA further exacerbate the negative impacts on agriculture.
Wyoming, he continued, is adept at properly managing lands and has proven its ability to achieve balance.
“We have managed our resources so that today they are the envy of other states and the rest of the world,” Magana said.
He further asserted, “If we were given greater freedom to manage the resource, even on public lands, and the resources to accomplish that, we would achieve the appropriate balance far better, more easily and in a far less controversial way than the federal government has been able to accomplish.”
“We urge that, because this issue has seen attention from the current administration, the committee and the legislature be vigilant to any decisions made,” Magagna emphasized.
After hearing from all sides in the debate about establishing Red Desert NCA, the committee decided to draft a letter to Wyoming’s congressional delegation about their concerns.
“We have heard good testimony, and as this moves forward, we ought to be involved,” Senator Eli Bebout of Riverton mentioned. “There are areas that ought to be considered for this designation, but not 1.5 million acres. There are a lot of unknowns as to how grazing leases would go moving forward.”
Representative Tim Stubson of Casper added, “Our letter will recognize that this is a special area, but express the committee’s concerns of additional restriction coming from the federal government and congressional actions.”