Weekly News Roundup: Friday, March 4

Miss the headlines this week? Catch up on Wyoming's response to war in Ukraine, the latest from the state legislature and a development fight in Rafter J.
A proposed bill before the Wyoming State Legislature would allow private sage-grouse farming to continue in the Cowboy State. (Tom Reichner/Shutterstock)

by | Mar 4, 2022 | Weekly News Roundups

 

Wyoming Responds to War in Ukraine

Wyoming’s congressional delegation has been consistent in its criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The lawmakers have also continued to promote American and Cowboy State energy as a response to the situation in Eastern Europe. Rep. Liz Cheney appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, and she said further economic sanctions from the United States against Russian President Vladimir Putin are necessary to deter his recent actions, especially when it comes to oil.

“The United States ought to be looking at ourselves, frankly as an arsenal of energy for the world. In the way that in World War II we were an arsenal of democracy, we ought to be an arsenal of energy,” Cheney said. “We ought to be unleashing our own energy resources, our own energy production. We ought to stop the imports of Russian oil to the United States.” 

As of press time, sanctions against Russia specifically exempt oil and natural gas. President Joe Biden has defended that decision, saying he doesn’t want Americans to feel more economic pain at the gas pump than they already are.

Cheney recently co-sponsored the bipartisan “American Energy Independence from Russia Act” to try and promote U.S. fossil fuel production.

In Jackson Hole, local residents have shown their support for Ukraine in protests on the Town Square. Check out KHOL’s coverage of those demonstrations, including conversations with some visiting Ukrainians, here

Rafter J Puts up Fight Against Legacy Lodge Development

Residents of Rafter J showed up en masse to a Teton County Planning Commission meeting Monday. For most, their purpose was to oppose turning the Legacy Lodge, a former assisted living facility in the area, into apartments for local workers. According to one public commenter, 91 out of the 128 emails sent to the commission have been against this development. Concerns include traffic and facilities impacts, a changing community character, and developers going against guidelines set forward in previous county and Rafter J regulations. Public comments on the issue ran late into the evening. 

The Legacy Lodge has been sitting empty since early last year after the health care company that ran it decided they could no longer afford to keep it open. Now, there’s no assisted living facility in Teton County, but the potential new developers say they’d like the building to support the local workforce by adding 57 units to the county’s housing stock. The planning commission, Teton County Board of Commissioners and Rafter J Homeowners Association will need to approve future plans for the development to move forward. The planning commission voted Monday to delay their eventual decision until later this month. 

Lawmakers Shake Up Redistricting Process

Redistricting continues to be a hot debate topic in Cheyenne as state lawmakers struggle to redraw voting lines to reflect population shifts. To compensate for Wyoming’s geographically diverse rural communities while maintaining districts with equal populations, the State House voted last week to add two house members and one senator to the legislature. But the senate promptly axed that plan Wednesday, deciding they don’t like the idea of expanding government. Republican Bo Biteman of Ranchester led that effort. 

“I think this is pragmatic. I think this works. I think this makes more people happy than the 62-31 plan,” Biteman said. “It’s less disruptive and I think it’s a plan that we can get behind.”

Detractors worry that Biteman’s plan will lead to lawsuits since some districts go outside typical population deviations allowed under the principle of one person, one vote. Others say the plan maintains most current district lines, which keeps recently elected lawmakers in power. As of press time, the senate needs to vote on the issue one more time before it will go back to the house for further approval. 

Driggs Airport Introduces New Fees for Private Planes

The airport in Driggs is making changes in preparation for the temporary closure of the Jackson Hole Airport coming up from mid-April to late June. The smaller airport won’t be accommodating any commercial traffic—and has no plans to do so—but it is expecting more private planes to land there while Jackson’s closed. That’s why the airport is introducing new landing fees for non-local planes over 9,000 pounds. 

“That will help our airport protect itself, like financially, in addition to having additional revenue to be able to go towards additional needs to do with the airport and possibly for the city as well,” said Driggs Mayor August Christensen.

Read KHOL’s full story about the new fees here.

Budget Amendment Eliminates UW’s Gender Studies Program

An amendment to the budget currently making its way through the Wyoming State Legislature would eliminate the University of Wyoming’s gender studies program. The motion was brought forward by Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), and it passed narrowly out of the senate after fierce debate. The senator said she doesn’t like the content being taught, and that she feels like the academic discipline is biased and shouldn’t be publicly funded. However, those who opposed the motion, including Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), argued that the legislature shouldn’t be making that kind of decision, especially during a budget session. 

“The idea that the legislature would step in and say, ‘Well, we don’t want this being taught,’ is contrary to the land grant and the flagship missions,” he said. “And I think it would really be disappointing if the university were to go down that path, if we were to decide what can and can’t be taught.”

About 105 courses would be cut if the vote holds up. Some senators have suggested the amendment isn’t legal, and that it could go too far, making all academic programs at UW subject to cuts based on the whims of state lawmakers. The State House rejected a similar amendment last week, and the governor could veto this decision once the legislative session ends in a couple of weeks.

Proposed Bill Would Criminalize Pregnant Drug Use

A bill moving forward in the Wyoming State Legislature would criminalize the use of some controlled substances by pregnant women. The proposal, brought forward by Rep. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton), would make it a felony to use methamphetamine or narcotics during pregnancy, according to the nonprofit publication WyoFile. She also said the measure wouldn’t change the law that much, and that it only seeks to protect both the future child and mother. But opponents, including Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) argued that the state should be investing in treatment options, rather than prisons. 

“I have concerns that this will keep pregnant women from getting prenatal care or the other things that they need during pregnancy up to birth,” Provenza said. “And so, if there’s the fear of criminalization or having the child taken from you, then are they going to seek prenatal care where they’re concerned that maybe they’re going to be turned in? Are they going to be willing to ask for substance abuse treatment?”

Provenza also pointed out that states that criminalize pregnant drug use tend to have higher rates of infants born with withdrawal syndrome. The bill passed out of committee and two readings in the house, but it will need to be read once more and then pass the senate, as well as the governor’s desk, before becoming law.

Several bills restricting abortion are also moving through the lawmaking process.

Sage-Grouse Farming in the Spotlight 

Another controversial bill moving through the legislative session would extend the practice of private sage-grouse farming in the Cowboy State. Sage-grouse are unique, large game birds native to much of the Mountain West, but habitat loss has led to significant population declines over the past few decades. Now, there’s one experimental farm near Powell, Wyoming, trying to raise the species in captivity, and legislators say it needs more time to show its viability for preserving the bird. However, many conservationists, including the Northern Arapaho tribal member Yufna Soldier Wolf of the Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming, oppose grouse farming.

“Many times in the past, my ancestors have talked about how unnatural and unholy it is to experiment with any species,” Soldier Wolf said, speaking during legislative committee testimony on Tuesday. “The issue at hand is not the sage-grouse. The issue at hand is the management of the land for the sage-grouse.”

Supplementing wild grouse populations with those raised in captivity remains illegal in Wyoming. Many wildlife biologists who testified Tuesday said changing that could result in massive ecological damage to local bird populations, and that searching for ways to conserve sagebrush habitat, where the grouse typically congregate, is the most effective way to preserve population numbers. 

At the end of the day, the long-term goal of the farms, and for many lawmakers who support the bill, is to prevent the sage-grouse from being listed on the federal Endangered Species List. That’s something that would have massive impacts on Wyoming’s oil and gas industries in terms of restricting where they could drill. The bill has already passed the State Senate and awaits further debate in the house.

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