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Teton County tries to develop land plan compromise

JACKSON — Rather than giving up, a county-appointed committee is maneuvering in the 11th hour to try to advance a unified recommendation that could be the framework of a legislative lands bill.

The Teton County Board of County Commissioners delayed voting Tuesday on a Wyoming Public Lands Initiative recommendation that achieved the approval the county had sought — two-thirds, or 12 of 18 members, of the stakeholder group. But nearly 200 people showed up to protest the plan, which called for 270 square miles of new wilderness, and a split county commission delayed its final decision until its meeting next Tuesday.

In the aftermath of the vote of indecision, committee member Tom Turiano is trying to bridge the gaps between the professional conservation and recreation advocacy communities.

“A lot of people are scrambling,” said Turiano, a self-described wilderness advocate. “I’d rather find common ground and come up with something than leave it at community polarization. I think the former is the higher road, and the other one is the lower, vibrating road.”

The Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, an effort of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, was geared primarily toward finding a resolution for the state’s 45 wilderness study areas.

Despite this focus, the Teton County group’s final plan considered by the commission Tuesday proposed leaving the Palisades Wilderness Study Area in its current state — which is supposed to be a temporary, wilderness-like designation.

Turiano’s “middle ground” plan, which he’s developing with attorney Len Carlman, is largely geared toward getting mountain bikers, snowmobilers and other motorized-advocacy committee members on board. Preliminarily, he said, the recommendation would elevate 58 square miles of land to wilderness — parcels that were already identified as acceptable by the motorized and mechanized cohort. It would also designate almost all the rest of Teton County’s nonwilderness portions of the Bridger-Teton National Forest as “Jackson Hole Conservation Area.”

The novel designation would capture five broad land-use goals and policies that the committee and county commission unanimously agreed to, Turiano said. Those are supporting wildlife, and allowing no new roads, oil and gas extraction, mineral mining or commercial timber harvest.

“Under the Jackson Hole Conservation Area idea,” Turiano said, “the ‘Big 5’ are addressed.”

Turiano worried that his plan wouldn’t have much traction with the professional conservationists on the committee, and, at first blush, it appeared his concern was on point.

Wilderness Society employee and committee member Dan Smitherman said he was disappointed that the county commission didn’t bring the WPLI process to a resolution. He doubted Turiano’s proposal would win his favor, but he wanted to withhold final judgement until he sees it.

“To us, it was confusing about what the next steps are,” Smitherman said.

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Commissioner Paul Vogelheim said Tuesday he hoped the committee would strive for “a greater consensus, of some sort” over the next week.

“If that’s not possible,” he said, “then we let it go.”

Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands co-founder Jesse Combs, who has been a point person for the committee’s motorized recreation members, said that he was keeping his hopes for a breakthrough in check.

“It’s hard for me to imagine, after two years of monthly meetings and lots of side meetings and discussions,” Combs said, “that in five days there’s going to be some grand compromise.”

Nevertheless, Turiano is upbeat about hanging a more broadly supported plan on the “Jackson Hole Conservation Area” concept.

“It’s a good idea,” Turiano said. “It could be a model for other places for protecting lands while allowing for recreation.”

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