End of rare or uncommon lands in Wyoming?

By Richard Garrett, Jr.
Your voice for conservation at the Wyoming State Legislature

THE WYOMING STATE LEGISLATURE IS POISED TO REPEAL an important environmental, cultural, and historical land designation this week when the Senate will likely vote to strip the state’s Environmental Quality Council of its authority to identify special landscapes as “very rare or uncommon.”

This ill-advised bill has already passed the House, and its passage in the Senate seems, to most observers, hardly in doubt.

If the bill does pass, it will be interesting to see if Gov. Matt Mead will sign it—or if, like his popular predecessor, he is willing to resist laws and lawmakers that ignore historical and environmental contexts, and defy conservation traditions, in the name of making all of the state available for all types of mining and drilling.

The “very rare or uncommon” land designation was originally created by the Legislature in 1973 (it was first called “unique and irreplaceable”).

The protection afforded by such a designation is modest but important: it simply means that non-coal surface mining is not allowed in a place determined to be “very rare or uncommon.” Thus the designation doesn’t affect sub-surface mining, oil and gas development, or other sub-surface resource development, and it doesn’t even preclude surface coal mining.

Since 1973, the Environmental Quality Council has used this designation to recognize a few important historical locations around the state as well as a handful of state wildlife habitat management areas and petroglyph sites—and, perhaps most importantly, to recognize the crown jewel of Wyoming’s Red Desert: Adobe Town.

All told, in nearly four decades, the designation has been conferred on a tiny portion of Wyoming’s lands: approximately 200,000 acres of the state’s more than 62 million acres (or on about .3 percent of the state’s total acreage).

Given these facts, the Legislature’s assault on this designation seems both odd and disproportionate. We would expect Wyoming’s elected officials to have more sympathy for the state’s unique places, wildlife, geology, and plants.

CHALLENGES TO DESIGNATION BEGAN ON ’09

The very rare or uncommon designation was first attacked by the legislature in 2009 when it tried to wrest the authority over the process from the executive branch.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal was alert to the challenge and quite rightly vetoed the bill.

Having failed in that attempt, a few legislators (with enthusiastic support from the oil and gas industry, mining interests and county commissioners) decided instead to simply strip the authority of the EQC to designate very rare or uncommon lands, while also opening the door to removals of previous designations by applicants and petitioners.

Thus places such as Adobe Town, the Fetterman battle site, Devil’s Gate, Gotheberg Draw, Eagle Roost and many others will be vulnerable for years to come to those who believe any recognition—however modest in description and scope—threatens energy and resource development in Wyoming.

CONTACT YOUR SENATOR

If you’d like to let your senator hear your concerns about this bill, here is a list where you can find your senator’s contact information: Click here.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council will be seeking an amendment to the bill, one that would remove all of Section 2 on page 3—this is an easy message to communicate to your senator and it keeps our objective simple to understand.

If adopted, the amendment would mean that no removal of previous designations would be possible.

For further information, please be in touch with me, the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s legislative advocate, Richard Garrett: richard@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org; 307-438-9516

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