Wyomingites consider past when looking forward with public lands initiativeWritten by Saige Albert
Lander – In the first meeting of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI), an effort spear-headed by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA), WCCA Executive Director Pete Obermueller noted that the new strategy comes with some tough questions to be answered.
“This is a new strategy, and it hasn’t been tried,” Obermueller said. “The question is – is the status quo ok?”
Wilderness study areas (WSAs) across the state are the focus of WCCA’s initiative, and Obermueller noted that the initiative strives to bring together stakeholders from vastly different backgrounds and interests to design a process to appropriately designate those federal lands.
“We all have our own opinions of what federal lands should look like, and we all share the status of having to ask, fight and in some cases beg for what we want,” he added.
“No matter what we desire, WSAs do not share a permanency we can rest on,” Obermueller said. “We have designed WPLI such that it is an opportunity for us to design what we want.”
During a daylong meeting, 75 stakeholders were invited to learn about the history of collaborative efforts surrounding federal lands and discuss their perspectives.
“This process has been developing for at least four years – if not longer,” Obermueller explained of WPLI. “It is an organic effort that has been growing over time.”
WPLI, he added, is not a wholesale effort to transfer ownership of public lands, but it is also not just an administrative effort.
“We are all in a position to ask for what we want – but we aren’t asking this time. We are creating what we want and passing it along,” Obermueller said.
Most importantly, he also noted that the process allows for everyone to come to the table with no ulterior motive.
“We need honesty and openness to make this work,” he added.
With an open, flexible and adaptive process, Obermueller also noted that success is not guaranteed through WPLI.
“At the end of the day, this is not going to be easy,” he said. “There is no guarantee of success, and I think that it is guaranteed we won’t be successful if we aren’t open.”
Additionally, without consistency, Obermueller said that success would be next to impossible.
WCCA serves as the umbrella organization to monitor and facilitate the process moving forward.
However, before looking at the next steps in WPLI, Obermueller suggested looking at what has worked in the past, as well as lessons that have been learned by various groups.
Paul Spitler of the Wilderness Society said, “There are a lot of examples of comprehensive efforts on public lands. Each of these has its own story. They contain different elements, but there are a lot of commonalities.”
He noted that successful efforts are all place-based, locally crafted and developed within a limited geographical scale.
“Another common feature of these bills is broad stakeholder support,” Spitler said. “In Congress today, there needs to be support on both sides of the aisle for a bill to pass.”
Travis McNiven of Sen. John Barrasso’s office further noted that Congress as a whole has been receptive to bills that originate from constituent groups. However, he added that everyone will not get everything they want.
“Usually, the situation is that groups come together, hash everything out and say, ‘We are all supportive of this product, recognizing we didn’t get everything,’” he said.
While looking at designations, McNiven said that creativity in working through the complexity of the issue will also be important.
“Process is important when looking to advance legislation,” he explained. “We have to point to an inclusive process when we speak with other members of Congress and their staffers. It needs to be robust because the process gets checked on.”
Spitler also explained that successful bills will also avoid hot-button issues and controversial topics.
“There are political ground rules,” he said. “They aren’t written down anywhere, but they are there.”
Hard release or Antiquities Act exemptions are several examples, and Spitler noted that those issues prevent passage of bills.
“There is a window of opportunity,” McNiven noted. “Wyoming’s delegation has seniority and some good committee positions. That will be helpful once there is agreement on the recommendations and a bill is ready to be introduced and advanced.”
He added that constituent groups working together also minimizes potential negative impacts of outside groups once a bill reaches Capitol Hill, simultaneously increasing chances for success.
“We have to share a commitment to win-win,” Spitler commented. “If we come into this process with an idealized version of the outcome, we are bound to be disappointed. If we come in looking at options and what we can do better, we are more likely to be successful.”
He added, “Success or failure is a fine line, and it often comes down to people. We have to be committed, willing and able to find a solution.”
Look for more information on WPLI in upcoming editions of the Roundup.