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The Forest Service Should Listen to the People

 Guest Comment – Hap Ridgway

            As the Shoshone National Forest nears finalization of its new management plan, it is worth taking a moment to look at the thousands of public comments received by the Forest Service and to understand the public interests expressed in those comments. 

            We all understand Wyoming’s commitment to conservative values, but in the upside-down world of today’s politics we might forget that those same values apply to the care of our national forests.

            Our first great conservationist president, Teddy Roosevelt, was a Republican who had a strong personal connection to the Shoshone National Forest; the United States Forest Service was founded during Roosevelt’s presidency and the Shoshone National Forest was our country’s first national forest.

            Conserving our national forests for all Americans, present and future, is not an alien idea in Wyoming, and comments from Wyoming residents on the management plan show this:  of the 410 letters submitted by Wyoming residents, 75% of those who commented on motorized use wanted no expansion of the areas for such use, 90% of wilderness comments supported more wilderness areas, and 98% of comments on oil and gas opposed surface development on the Shoshone.

            This strong Wyoming support for conservation may surprise some readers, but it has a long history in Park County, where I live.  More than 30 years ago, concerned citizens formed the Northwest Resource Council to battle surface oil development on the Shoshone.  In 1980s and 1990s, local zoning helped protect natural values of the Shoshone National Forest and the Absaroka Mountains.

            More recently, Cody developed two long-range plans with a consistent conservation voice: Vision 2007 followed by Cody 2020.  During the Cody 2020 planning process, 1700 local residents identified recreation, open space, the environment, and small town lifestyle  as their most important values.

            Make no mistake: conservation may not be the loudest voice in Wyoming, but it is deeply and strongly rooted. The comments to the Forest Service should surprise no one.

            The Forest Service also received individual comment letters from 655 people who don’t live in Wyoming but who care enough about the future of the Shoshone to write.

            The support for conservation is equally strong within and without Wyoming:  of the total 1065 individual comments, 70% broadly supported conservation measures, 74% of motorized comments opposed additional motorized areas, 92% of wilderness comments supported additional wilderness, and 99% of oil and gas comments opposed surface development.

            The Forest Service received over 22,000 more comments submitted through organizations.  Combining all comments, 98% favored the priorities of conservation.

            That would seem to be an overwhelming mandate, but the Forest Service discounts the organizationally driven responses as less meaningful.

            Most people don’t have the time or opportunity to attend public hearings, read hundreds of pages of planning documents, and compose individual comments; it’s no surprise that many turn to organizations they trust, on either side of the debate, for guidance.

            Regardless of how they are submitted, these people’s opinions matter, and their voices need to be heard and respected.

            It’s also important to note how much outpouring of interest came from outside Wyoming, from the well of past and future visitors to our state.

            The importance of tourism to Wyoming – from auto tours to guest ranches to ice climbing to wildlife watching to museum visits to water rafting – increases every year.  In 2011, Yellowstone National Park’s three million visitors spent more than $300 million in communities around the Park and generated more than 5,000 jobs.

            The beautiful little secret about conservation, especially in a state with Wyoming’s great natural beauty, is that it is a terrific economic engine. If we sustain that resource, it will sustain us.  It is the ultimate renewable resource that will last not just a few years or a few decades; it can power and support Wyoming as far as the mind’s eye can see.

            I hope the Forest Service, as it puts the finishing touches on the Shoshone Forest management plan, will pay close attention to the strong conservation voice revealed in the public comments.

            The Forest Service’s website proclaims its commitment to “100 years Caring for the Land and Serving the People.” These are proud words, and many people agree that the organization has met this commitment over the last century.

            This new management plan will take us well into the next century. The people of Wyoming and the United States have strongly voiced their preference for conservation, and their desire mirrors the Forest Service’s stated commitment to care for the land.

Hap Ridgway lives in the Sunlight Basin near Cody Wyoming, where he and his family have owned and operated Elk Creek Ranch, a ranch and wilderness program for teenagers, since the 1950s.  Hap’s Guest Editorial was published in the Casper Star Tribune on September 21, 2013.

 

 

 

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