As the nation’s largest landlord shifts its priorities, outrage ensues in Wyoming

SWEETWATER COUNTY, Wyo. - From near the 8,700 foot peak of Steamboat Mountain here, Mark Kot looks down on the sandy and brush-covered Red Desert - home to some of the largest desert elk, pronghorn and sage grouse populations in North America.

For decades, the U.S. government made resource extraction - mining, grazing, and oil and gas development - a priority on public lands such as these in southwest Wyoming. Environmental protections often came second. That would change under a sweeping Biden administration plan to place hundreds of thousands of acres of the Red Desert and the surrounding sagebrush steppe off limits to development.

It represents a big shift for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the 80 year-old agency that oversees 245 million acres of public property - about a tenth of the nation’s land mass. Known as the nation’s largest landlord, the bureau is putting more emphasis on conservation, recreation and renewable energy development as the planet warms.

Many politicians in this Republican-dominated state fiercely oppose the plans for Wyoming, arguing they could kneecap industries crucial to the region’s economy. Environmentalists counter that it would be a long-overdue update for the modern age, to protect the nation’s public lands from the emerging challenges of climate change and development.

The Red Desert “is sacred to us who live here,” said Kot, 68, a former county planner from Rock Springs who spent a decade trying to craft a compromise for managing the area and now works for several quasi-government commissions and environmental groups, mostly on a volunteer basis. “So if we want this, we have to preserve it.”

Biden officials say that, in the face of droughts, fires and demand for renewable energy, they need to take a new approach to industries that bring billions of dollars into government coffers and local economies.

Climate change is already posing difficult threats to the agency’s mission, its director Tracy Stone-Manning said in an email. The bureau must respond to it with urgency, and “all of these efforts are aimed” at preserving clean water, landscapes and healthy wildlife populations for future generations.


It won’t be an overnight transition. Many proposals still face months, if not years of work before they become final. And while some communities in states such as Colorado and New Mexico are receptive, others - often in Republican-led states - are poised to fight long and hard.

Wyoming is a fossil fuel titan and a burgeoning wind-energy producer, and the federal proposal that Kot backs has sparked fierce protests here. Several GOP state officials gathered in the county’s largest town last month to hold a “Rock Springs Freedom Rally,” calling the bureau their top obstacle. Even Republicans here who view themselves as conservationists say that the Biden administration has gone too far, and some even are claiming it is a form of imperialism.

“It does seem to me this is a very top-down, Washington-centric approach that has kind of cut the legs out from the local people,” Gov. Mark Gordon (R) said in an interview. “Unfortunately, Wyoming finds itself imposed upon by these colonial forces of national environmental groups who are pushing an agenda onto Wyoming.”

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A tug-of-war over priorities

Much of this agenda goes back to President Biden’s campaign promises. As a candidate, he called climate change an existential crisis and, in his first weeks, directed all major government departments to take action to address it. He also signed an executive order reaffirming his “30 x 30″ commitment - to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and water - over 720 million acres - by 2030.

Interior is central to these efforts, with Biden reemphasizing its environmental obligations after his predecessor pushed it to maximize oil, gas and mineral development. Donald Trump even briefly moved its headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo., a hotspot for natural gas production.

The tug-of-war over Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has gone on for decades. The agency manages some of the West’s most spectacular red-rock canyons, intact wildlife habitats and uncrowded camping spots, but has also long been an engine for energy production - primarily fossil fuels. It manages even more of what’s below ground than above, more than a third of the country’s subsurface rights. That makes it the country’s largest coal owner, responsible for nearly half of all U.S. coal mined every year. Nearly 11 percent of all U.S. oil output and roughly 8 percent of U.S. natural gas also come through the bureau, according to federal data, producing about $3 billion to $10 billion of revenue a year.

Under Biden, however, the bureau has leased only a small fraction of the millions of acres that his predecessors had made available, going back at least to the 1970s, while modifying other policies to meet the president’s environmental priorities. It published one of the biggest changes, the Public Lands Rule, in March. The proposal would put conservation, restoration and recreation on equal footing with energy and mineral production on federal lands, as Congress intended, supporters say.

This year, the agency is studying how to speed up renewable energy development, and has proposed reducing fees for solar and wind projects by around 80 percent. It also wants to hike the royalties and fees charged to oil and gas drillers on federal land, and is trying to revive an Obama-era program to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from such industry operations.

Nowhere have these policies sparked outrage more than in Wyoming, which accounts for nearly a tenth of all U.S. fossil fuel production. Most of this comes from federal lands, which Wyoming’s powerful ranching industry also relies on for cattle grazing.

At issue is a proposed revision of the region’s Resource Management Plan, a blueprint that guides activity on federal lands and which often reflects an administration’s larger priorities. The proposal includes Sweetwater County, an area larger than six U.S. states but with a population - about 42,000 - smaller than many suburbs. Almost three-fourths of this county is owned by the federal government.

It’s an area of stunning natural vistas. The Killpecker Sand Dunes - the second largest dunes in the world - rise up from the desert, offering visitors majestic views of surrounding rock spires and other geologic formations. The 1,200-feet-high Oregon Buttes were an iconic landmark for settlers cresting the Rockies on the Oregon Trail.

What makes this desert special, advocates and scientists say, is the variety of flora and fauna that thrive here. Vast herds of elk and mule deer pass twice a year through these sandy foothills, one of North America’s longest mammal migration corridors. It also provides important habitat for sage grouse - a barometer for the health of other Western wildlife - and pronghorn, including some of the largest herds in the state.

“This landscape has been called the Serengeti of the United States,” Kot said. It is one the largest expanses of unfenced open range in the Lower 48, which is “probably the most unique thing about this country,” he added.

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Blueprint has national implications

Largely to protect this migration corridor, Kot and other conservationists have thrown their support behind the federal agency’s preferred plan for the Rock Springs area. It would establish a nearly sixfold increase in the land set aside as “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern,” the highest level of protection that can be designated in these plans. That would limit development across half of the entire region, or 1.6 million acres in all, an area roughly the size of Delaware.

It comes at a critical time for the region, said Dennis Knight, an ecologist who has written a book about Wyoming landscapes and spent much of the last 50 years observing the Red Desert. Climate change, extreme weather and development pressures are further threatening already-shrinking animal populations.


Those problems imperil habitat already fragmented by ranch fences, and oil and gas roads. Without stronger protections, Wyoming risks becoming more like neighboring states to the east, where agriculture and development have chased wildlife away, Knight said.

Nick Dobric, the Wyoming conservation manager for The Wilderness Society, said there is a wide appreciation in Wyoming for protecting wildlife and open space, but less consensus on the federal government’s role. “That’s sometimes where we have disagreements,” he said.

That has been an open question since 2011, when the bureau started the official process to update a management plan that is now nearly a quarter century old.

In Sweetwater County government, Kot spent a decade working on input for the plan with Wally Johnson, then county commissioner. Kott, a Democrat, and Johnson, a Republican, differ on many issues, but on the federal blueprint, they usually worked in lockstep. Among other changes, they both wanted stronger protections for the migration path and limits on energy projects, especially oil and gas, in some of the most sensitive places.

Now three years into retirement, the men are facing off against each other, with Johnson protesting the new plan. Johnson, a former mining industry executive, is a longtime advocate for habitat protections, especially for Wyoming’s Greater Little Mountain Area, a big home for mule deer and dwindling aspen forests. But he says that federal officials should soften their stance, accusing them of ignoring local culture and economics, and the country’s need for domestic energy.

He’s aligned himself with local sportsmen at The Muley Fanatic Foundation - a group dedicated to mule deer conservation - who want a more nuanced blueprint. It would include new protections for some of the 1.6 million acres, primarily the Greater Little Mountain Area’s high desert.

But they also want the federal government to allow for some development in areas proposed for more stringent safeguards. Drillers and miners would be allowed to reach underground reserves, but only through wells or shafts that start from outside the protected habitat, sometimes miles from their targets.

“I would say, ‘Drill, baby, drill - but not everywhere,’” Johnson, 83, of Rock Springs, said. “There are places we should preserve. But when the nation needs to be energy independent and we’ve got a tremendous amount of minerals and energy in the state of Wyoming, we’ve got to tap that.”


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A region ripe with resources

Beneath the rugged splendor of the steppe and desert around Rocks Springs lies a resource-rich subterranean world that goes beyond fossil fuel reserves. Some 850 feet underground, for instance, sits the world’s biggest supply of trona, an essential mineral for baking soda and the soda ash that makes glass, soaps and other consumer staples.

In southwestern Wyoming, trona miners tout themselves as a bulwark against China, the primary competitor to Wyoming for soda ash. While agency officials say they don’t intend their plans for the region to disrupt its existing industry, the legal language of the agency’s preferred proposal isn’t so certain. It puts restrictions on development in the area that could block work even underground, said Michael McGrady, an executive for the mine’s controlling owners, Turkish glassmaker Sisecam.

The proposal may prevent the company from extending existing leases or adding new ones, McGrady said, for the federally-owned minerals at its complex, known locally as the Big Island Mine and Refinery, about a half-hour’s drive north of the county seat Green River. Among other issues, it might also prevent the addition of on-site solar or wind power generation, he said, to help run the site.

Frank Pharr, who runs the system that dumps the mine’s soda ash into rail cars, said the scope of Biden’s agenda seems aimed at killing off traditional businesses.

“We have a lot of land here, and it needs to be protected, sure,” said Pharr. “But . . . there’s ways of doing that, not just closing it all off.”

Interior officials disagree they are closing off opportunities. Across the West, recreation businesses are booming. The Wyoming plan, supporters say, would help those endeavors, along with clean energy development.

In neighboring Carbon County, named 150 years ago for the coal it produced to support the new cross-country railroad, is now known for world-class wind that churns turbines all over its mountain ridges.

TransWest Express LLC - an affiliate of billionaire Philip Anschutz - is breaking ground on a project to send wind power from Wyoming to the bright lights around Las Vegas and several other Western cities, traveling partly through a corridor for high-voltage transmission lines the federal agency created. The agency is now mulling other corridors to deliver clean energy from the windy mountains to big cities that want it.

While Wyoming isn’t as sunny as states such as Arizona or Nevada, the administration’s solar review is also likely to benefit Carbon County, agency officials said, partly because of the new interstate transmission line.

“Other counties can replicate it,” said Duane Spencer, the bureau’s deputy state director for minerals and lands in Wyoming.

But solar farms take up a lot more land than wind turbines, and could effectively wipe out many of the wide open spaces Wyoming residents use for hunting, grazing and farming, said Terry Weickum, the Republican mayor of Rawlins, a town of 8,000 that is the seat of Carbon County.


Over the years, as a county commissioner, Weickum worked closely with federal officials on wind development. But he dislikes much of Biden’s agenda - so much so that he recently sat in a room with several Bureau of Land Management officials and described the Rock Springs proposal as “just the last slap in the face” of several from the administration.

“Cancer starts in one part of your body and your foot don’t know it, but it might be your knee. I mean, you pay attention,” Weickum said. He added that he works well with local bureau officials, but has problems with their bosses - Biden and his appointees in Washington. “There is a trust factor with that.”

Bureau officials are often hesitant to talk about the resource management plan with so much controversy and emotion swirling around it. Last month they agreed to extend the public comment period 60 days, into January. And two people involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations that aren’t public, said administration officials have been working on a compromise.

All elements of the plan are up for reconsideration, a bureau spokesman said. Stone-Manning said that taking further public comment will allow the agency to engage more with the Rock Springs community. She added the agency is committed to working with diverse interests, including industry, as plans for other public lands are rolled out.

The bureau’s “focus remains on active, constructive engagement with the public and stakeholders on all proposed rules and actions,” she said. “We have seen countless instances where stakeholders sit at a table, pour over maps and find common ground, so we are looking forward to this opportunity.”