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Horseback riding in Shoshone National Forest
A horseback rider crosses through Shoshone National Forest. As the forest revises its management plan, a coalition of Fremont County businesses and organizations are advocating for the forest’s recreational use. (Erin/Flickr — click to enlarge)

By Kelsey Dayton

The customers that walk into Wild Iris Mountain Sports come from all over the world. They stop in Lander on their trips from France or Canada or the eastern United States, drawn to the recreation opportunities the area offers. Sometimes they are snow machine enthusiasts. Some are skiers. Many are climbers. Almost all are headed to the Shoshone National Forest to recreate.

People pop into the shop for gear and the condition reports, but lately the store has also become a place where people can learn about the ongoing Shoshone National Forest management plan revision and get involved in shaping it.

At Wild Iris, for about a month, starting at the end of August, customers were asked if they received their free water bottle as they checked out. The catch? To get the bottle, they needed to write a comment letter to the forest about the Shoshone.

Hiking through Shoshone National Forest

Hikers cross a stream in Shoshone National Forest. The revision of the forest’s management plans could change where motorized vehicles are allowed to travel and what types of recreation are allowed in certain areas. (Greg Willis/Flickr — click to enlarge)

The effort is just an example of Fremont County businesses working to get people involved in the Shoshone National Forest’s Management Plan. This spring businesses and organizations banded together to form the Wind River Front, a group advocating the importance of recreation on the Shoshone as the forest moves forward in revising its management plan.

The forest is in process of revising its plan that will guide management of the 2.4 million acres of public land for the next 15 to 20 years. Management plans include rules about where energy development could be allowed, use of motorized transportation and quotas for timber harvest, as well as dictate what types of recreation are allowed in certain areas.

Formation of the group began this past spring because local businesses and residents worried that the Forest Service wasn’t hearing enough about the importance of recreation, whereas elected county commissioners and other existing groups seemed to have the ear of the agency. Wind River Front now has about 30 active members and an email list of about 90, said Tim Hudson, a spokesman for the group. They began as a loose group, meeting at local restaurants trying to figure out how they could best impress the importance of recreation on Fremont County’s economy to forest planners. With the guidance of conservation groups like the Wyoming Outdoor Council, they formed the Wind River Front.

Wind River Front officials say the group represents a broad range of interests. Some, like Wild Iris, are directly affected by recreation on the forest. Others, like Hudson’s  carpentry business, thrive in the area because people choose to live in Lander for the nearby recreational opportunities on the forest.

There’s no specific agenda the group is pushing due to the varying interests among recreationists, according to Hudson. For instance, some want less motorized use, while those who ride ATVs are looking for more trails. Some backcountry skiers want a section of Togwotee Pass closed to snowmobiling, whereas snowmobilers oppose such a ban. All of these interests are represented by Wind River Front.

Wyoming map of federal jurisdiction

A map detailing the jurisdiction of federal agencies in Wyoming. Conflicted interests are common among Wind River Front’s varied membership, so the group has chosen not to advocate one recreational agenda over another. (Wikimedia — click to enlarge)

Issues that are divisive among the group will be left out of the group’s official comments to the Forest Service, and individuals are encouraged to submit their own comments on the issues. As a result, while the group’s comments won’t oppose additional motorized use — including proposed connectors to create loops for ATVs — they will ask for better enforcement to keep motorized use on legal trails, Hudson said.

As a group, Wind River Front will submit some comments representing everyone in the network, but it will be more general, Hudson said. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that they want only a small area set aside for surface occupancy and oil and gas development.

“The fewer acres the better,” Hudson said.

One of the major goals of the group is to educate its members and others in the community about the forest planning process and help people comment — no matter their stance on the issues, Hudson said.

“It’s an intimidating process,” he said.

Up until recently Hudson himself didn’t know what government cooperators were and how input for the plan was gathered. Additionally, people don’t always realize how something like a forest plan might directly impact them.

“It’s a matter of education,” Hudson said. “If people knew, they’d become more active in these things.”

That was why Wild Iris started the free water bottle — and forest comment — efforts, Tilden said.

The store didn’t push what the letter had to say. Serving all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts, the staff avoided taking a stand on the types of recreation that deserve more consideration in the forest management plan, said Emily Tilden, assistant manager of Wild Iris. Instead it was about getting people to comment on what the forest means to them.

“We just want people to be heard, no matter their opinion,” Tilden said.

Too often those who are passionate about recreation — who use the forest and also patronize the store — don’t get involved in something as seemingly dry and technical as a forest plan she said..

“Wild Iris has been in business more than 20 years,” she said. “We’d like to be in business another 100 years.”

But it’s also a personal one for Tilden and employees at the store who choose to live in Lander because of the outdoor opportunities.

The store provided letterhead with instructions on how to write a letter, including who the author was, their relationship to the area — resident or visitor — and how and where they use the forest.

Tilden herself hasn’t studied the entire forest plan. But she knows she can make valuable comments on why the forest is important to her.

“I know with 100 percent certainty the things I’m passionate about and where I like to do them,” she said.

Those types of comments can be helpful, said Kristie Salzmann, public affairs officer with the Shoshone National Forest. Comments that simply say they don’t like something in one of the possible plans are not helpful, she said. The forest wants to know why, and what might be better, she said. They also want to know if things are great the way they are, so if someone writes a comment saying they climb, or ski, or hike, or snowmobile in a certain area and love it as is, that is helpful to planners.

Recreation has been a key point of discussion at public meetings the Forest Service held across the state, but there are varying opinions about recreation on the forest, especially when it comes to motorized use.

While the forest is known for its recreation offerings, no topic regarding the forest plan has yet emerged as the biggest issue for comment or discussion, Salzmann said.

That could change as public comments begin to come in before the Nov. 1 deadline.

Wild Iris gave out 65 water bottles in less than a month but some people wrote letters and didn’t take a bottle, Tilden said. She didn’t have an exact count on the letters.

Throughout the process the biggest thing Tilden learned was how people are represented by elected officials in something like a forest plan.

“That brings me to the next thing,” she said. “Go out and vote.”

To comment or learn more about the Shoshone National Forest visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/shoshone/home/?cid=stelprdb5379153.

Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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