Aug 24, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer
Organizations seek to shield parts of Shoshone National Forest from motorized use
Flying at 14,000 feet gives an entirely different perspective of the Absaroka Mountains. When the air is clear, the human eye can see all the way to Mount Moran in the Tetons.
What is in the foreground, however, is more stunning. Each time the plane wheeled around new clouds, the plane's passengers could see a new succession of peaks and drainages carpeted in evergreen trees and grass marching to the horizon.
Seeing the terrain that is invisible from the highway, and even mostly invisible from established trails, shows the immensity of that space.
The Wyoming Wilderness Association would like to protect three of those spaces by influencing the Shoshone National Forest's Land Management Plan. WWA partnered with the non-profit organization Ecoflight to offer an educational aerial tour of the areas July 16.
"It shows the continuousness and contiguousness of the land, and it gives the land a voice," said Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon.
WWA wants the Forest Service to recommend the DuNoir, Wood River and Franc's Peak areas to be wilderness areas.
"Part of the appeal of that (Wood River and Franc's Peak) area is you have everything from low grasslands up to high peaks, so there's a diversity of wildlife habitat," WWA organizer Sarah Walker said.
Advocating for more wilderness now is fitting, she said, because 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which created the definition of wilderness and protected about 9 million acres.
The DuNoir area is important because it is lies between the Washakie and Teton wildernesses, she said, so it's an "ideal connector."
The long, bureaucratic forest plan process is close to its end, and changing it now relies on official objections. Forest officials released a final draft of the land management plan in January.
That version did not include recommendations for new wilderness and expanded motor vehicle access, though it did close land to oil and gas development, Walker said.
"That was the one part of the plan we were really pleased about," she said about the drilling restrictions.
Since then, dozens of individuals and organizations have filed objections. WWA thinks many people support their positions.
There were 450 letters from Wyoming residents and groups, Walker said, and 90 percent of those called for more wilderness.
Gordon's plane took off from Lander's Hunt Field early one morning and flew up the Wind River Valley to Crowheart. Soon, it turned west into the mountains, and WWA member Kim Wilbert of Riverton guided it through the Absarokas, pointing out areas of concern to WWA, such as ones the forest plan would open to motor vehicles.
According to a WWA report, the DuNoir covers about 29,000 acres, and is home to an elk migration route and calving grounds. The Wood River area has about 57,000 acres, Franc's Peak encompasses 68,000 acres, and the two areas support large wildlife populations.
"Franc's Peak has the most healthy, largest bighorn sheep herd in the lower 48," Wilbert said.
According to WWA, that population numbers to roughly 1,300 sheep.
Fremont County Commission vice chairwoman Keja Whiteman went on the flight, though she said she believes in using public lands for multiples uses.
"This is not my area of expertise, so I take any opportunity I can to learn from different perspectives," Whiteman said. "I've heard when you're flying you have a different view of forest health, and I've never had that opportunity."
Wilderness areas are closed to motorized and mechanized uses, but it would be open to more primitive recreation, hunting and livestock grazing. It has to be in a fairly pristine state before a federal agency can recommend an area to become wilderness, and an official designation requires congressional action.
Based in Aspen, Colo., Ecoflight puts on about 200 flights per year throughout the Rocky Mountain region to support conservation causes, Gordon said.
The U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., is reviewing the objections and within a month should decide whether the objections warrant a change to the forest plan, Walker said. The national office would then communicate the decision to the Shoshone National Forest office, she said.
Then, local officials would begin negotiations with objectors.
"We expect some serious changes hopefully," Walker said.