Wyoming Wilderness: Finding Balance

Recently I attended a panel discussion at the University of Wyoming about the past, present and future of Wilderness in the state of Wyoming.

Since then I’ve been pondering our wild areas and the careful balance between protection, recreation and industry.

But first some background. Brace yourself, it’s about to get nerdy around here.


On September 3, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. This bill established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set aside 9.1 million acres of wildlands for the “use and benefit of the American people.” Since then Congress has preserved over 100 million acres in designated Wilderness areas (yep with a capital “W”–)


What is Wilderness?

According to the 1964 Wilderness Act the term “Wilderness” is defined as “areas where the earth and its communities of life are left unchanged by people, where the primary forces of nature are in control, and where people themselves are visitors who do not remain.”

Here’s what I learned about Wilderness in the panel discussion. There are 3,111,232 acres of designated Wilderness in Wyoming. You can click over here for a nifty map. There are no permanent roads in Wilderness areas, there are no bicycles allowed, and the Forest Service won’t even use chainsaws (because they are a motorized)…just regular crosscut saws. There are a lot of rules about wilderness areas and the law isn’t always black and white especially pertaining to commercial enterprise and permanent roads.


Wilderness areas are wild and for the most part untouched.

At this discussion there were 5 panelists who each had different views on Wyoming Wilderness. Below is what I took away from each panelist.

Margi Schroth: Owner of the HF Bar Guest Ranch.

The HF Bar Guest Ranch has been in operation for 103 years. Schroth believes that we have a responsibility to leave a legacy and to leave the Wilderness as good as we found it. To do no harm.

Joel Bousman: Sublette County Commissioner

According to Bousman, right after Wilderness areas were designated in Wyoming people flocked to them. The act brought attention to the Wilderness, it had the opposite effect. There was also some wild west stuff going, some people wanted to tear out highways, close down ski lodges, there are even reports of Forest Service employees destroying personal property (as in burning down cabins) that were on newly designated Wilderness. Eventually the drama subsided. Bousman believes that we need to create more Wilderness areas by working with people on the ground, the locals. Not by taking wilderness away from people.

Ralph Swain: US Forest Service Regional Wilderness Manager

Swain believes that what defines Wyoming is our Wilderness, our wildlife and our wild character. He’s an advocate for preserving Wilderness for future generations and got a little bit sentimental about it.

Alan Simpson: Retired US Senator

Simpson believes that Wyoming looks good because our ancestors made it look good when they first came here and we’ve been taking care of the Wilderness ever since. He believes that it’s “tough as hell,” to keep balance in a state filled with Wilderness, oil and gas.

Bart Koehler

Koehler believes that Wyoming is what America was. Many states don’t have anything left that could be classified as a Wilderness area.


So how do I feel about the Wilderness?

I believe that we protect what we love. I love the wilderness, I love walking through a forest and not seeing garbage on the side of the trails. I love busting my lungs and making my legs burn on a steep mountain trail. I love fragile alpine terrain. I love clean rivers and cold high altitude mountain lakes. I love standing on the top of a mountain and seeing nobody else for miles and miles and miles.

So naturally I want to protect and preserve Wyoming’s wilderness and I’d love to have more Wilderness areas added to the list.

But at the same time, I appreciate roads that my tax dollars pay to get me to those places. I like to hop on my mountain bike and ride. I also like cutting down firewood with a chainsaw. If I were to get lost or injured I’d like Search & Rescue to be able to hop on speedy ATV’s to find me. And we write trail guides for a living so naturally we are pro-outdoor recreation. I want to be able to take my children to beautiful outdoor spaces so they learn to love, respect and preserve them.

That’s where the careful balance comes in. The balance between pure, raw Wilderness and wild spaces where we can recreate. I have to agree with several panelists who emphasized that the discussion of future Wilderness areas needs to happen at the local level, it needs to be grassroots. It can’t be a decision made by a bunch of politicians who don’t even own a pair of hiking boots.

Every day I’m thankful to live in Wyoming. I don’t always appreciate the wind, or the rolling prairie but I do appreciate the people who had the forethought to put aside land for the “use and benefit of the American people.”

What do you think about Wyoming’s Wilderness? Do you think that there’s any place in our region that should be a designated Wilderness area?

p.s. if you’re curious here’s what the Sheridan Free Press wrote about the event.  

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