As the epicenter of controversy over the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed plan for 3.6 million acres of public land in the Rock Springs area, Sweetwater County could set a precedent for how things go across Wyoming and the region.
“If it’s ours first, then what happens in Sweetwater County is precedent, and it can go from there and spread from there,” County Commissioner Taylor Jones told Cowboy State Daily about how the county responds to the BLM’s preferred plan, which favors conservation over other popular public uses.
The Sweetwater County Commission has sent letters to the BLM asking that the agency’s favored version of the Resource Management Plan (RMP), Alternative B, be dismissed. Or, at least that the public comment period for the RMP, now set to end Nov. 16, be extended.
Commissioners don’t hold much hope that either of those things will happen.
“Everything feels rushed. There’s a lot of uncertainly to it. It’s been kind of all over the place, to be honest,” said Commissioner Keaton West.
1.8 Million Acres In Question
The BLM manages a huge swath of land from the Rock Springs office, the bulk of it in Sweetwater Couty. Alternative B designates 1.8 million acres, or about half, as “areas of critical environmental concern” (ACES).
An update of the Rock Springs RMP has been in the works for years, and the BLM has outlined four alternatives.
Alternative A proposes leaving things as they are. Alternative B — the controversial plan favored by the BLM and Biden administration — leans heavily toward conservation and preservation. Alternative C skews the other way, toward as much energy development and other heavy uses as possible.
Alternative D would strike a balance between the extremes. It involves the most input from Sweetwater County and other cooperators, Commissioner Island Richards said. It would probably be much more favorable from the county’s perspective.
Sheriff Said He Won’t Cooperate
Sweetwater County Sheriff John Grossnickle recently told members of the Wyoming Legislature that if the RMP passes Alternative B, he won’t cooperate with BLM law enforcement in enforcing it.
It’s a similar tact many local-level law enforcement agencies took with enforcing public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Richards said county commission won’t direct Grossnickle one way or the other, and trusts him to make his own decisions for his department.
“He’s elected to do his job, to do law enforcement how he thinks it needs to be done,” Richards said.
Jones agreed that it’s not the commission’s place to manage the sheriff, adding that he personally supports Grossnickle’s stance.
“I support him 100%,” Jones said. “I think it’s great that he would take that stance. If I understand it correctly, the sheriff’s office would not support the BLM is enforcing those rules. And if the BLM were to arrest somebody and take them to the Sweetwater County Jail, they would be turned away.”
Calls to the sheriff’s office for comment weren’t returned by Tuesday evening.
Some legislators also have called for draft bills urging Gov. Mark Gordon’s office to not cooperate with the BLM, creating a new position in the governor’s office to protect the state’s interest and possibly try to convince BLM employees to come work for the state instead.
Richards says he likes the idea of the new position in the governor’s office.
“I think that concept is great, to have somebody at the state level who can coordinate all of that, because this is not just a county issue,” he said.
Lots Of Support
Richards, Jones and West said they’ve been heartened by the support they’ve gotten from other Wyoming counties.
There’s been “near unanimous, if not unanimous” support from every other Wyoming county stating that Alternative B isn’t a good choice, Richards said.
The Sweetwater County Republican Party also has offered training sessions for the public on how to submit “substantive” comments that the BLM will take into account, he said. That’s important, because public comments could “move the needle” toward the BLM backing away from Alternative B.
The draft proposal, maps and other information is available online, as is a guide for filing comments.
He and the other commissioners said they’re frustrated because, from their perspective, the BLM hasn’t really listened to Sweetwater County or other cooperators, including the agency’s own employees, in considering Alternative D.
“It doesn’t make sense that we’ve had 12 years of cooperator’s input, and they threw that all out the window and with that that alternative (B). It’s unprecedented, and it’s not the way you treat people who are supposedly your cooperating partners,” Richards said.
He added that the commission doesn’t blame BLM employees in the Rock Springs office for decisions that were made above their heads.
“I have to give some of the local employees of the BLM credit,” he said. “They have been really helpful in teaching us what a ‘substantive’ comment is, and how to do it.”
What About Those Roads?
When the initial draft of the RMP was released, it included a passage indicating that the number of roads and trails in the Rock Springs area might be cut down to 2,500 miles.
BLM officials recently told legislators that passage was left in the RMP draft in error. A “travel management plan” for the Rock Springs area will be handled as a completely separate matter.
Jones said there’s still some concern over roads and trails in Sweetwater County, however. Off-highway vehicle recreation is a huge part of the county’s tourism economy. And the RMP as it is already could strike huge blows to the county’s energy sector, possibly costing as many as 3,000 jobs.
There also seems to be some discrepancy over just how many miles of roads and trails there are in Sweetwater County, Jones added.
The BLM estimates about 16,000 miles, but according to the county’s mapping there are roughly 33,000 miles of passable roads and trails.
As the comment period nears its end, the commission continues to worry about how the RMP could affect the county, West said.
“We have a large, large concern and we want to protect what we all appreciate in Sweetwater County. It’s why we’re here. It’s what keeps our economy booming,” he said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.