Wyoming is a special place.
It’s special in part because of its pristine wildlands and its jaw-dropping scenery. Every year, visitors flock to the Grand Prismatic Spring and the rest of the thermal features at Yellowstone National Park. They gaze at the Tetons, the mountains jutting from earth to sky, and they see elk, deer and other wildlife living as they were meant to live – wild and free.
We are lucky to have these two beautiful national parks in Wyoming, as well as many acres of public land spread across the state. But in these special places, doubts about future access are starting to creep in.
In the middle of Grand Teton National Park sit two 1-mile-square parcels of land. The clock is ticking on a deal to lock them in as part of the park forever. If the Department of the Interior doesn’t come up with money to buy them by the end of the year, the land could be sold to the highest bidder — possibly leading to the construction of houses or condos in the middle of the national park. There are other options, such as a land swap, but a sale to a private party is a possibility.
This is the sort of result we could expect more of if Wyoming was to take ownership of lands that are currently managed by the federal government. Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of legislation we have come to see some Wyoming lawmakers propose.
Some of them want to turn management of federal lands over to the state, allowing Wyoming to reap the economic benefits of ownership. Money from state land sales goes to education funding – certainly an important part of the state budget, which has taken a hit because of the decline in mineral revenues. These measures so far have failed, with Wyomingites saying time and again that a federal land takeover is not the right move.
People who live here know that these lands are rich with opportunities and meaning, and they should not be sold to the highest bidder. Whether the land parcel is in the middle of Grand Teton National Park or in Natrona County, they offer invaluable, irreplaceable benefits. This matters very much in Wyoming, where about half of the land is owned by the public.
Public land provides dramatic benefits to those of us who live in Wyoming for the chance to hunt, fish, backpack, camp and hike on them. Others visit, bringing their tourism dollars, for that same reason. Even for those who don’t use them directly, public lands preserve many of the stunning views around the state.
It’s also important to note that state land, while it is technically public, doesn’t come with all the same benefits as federal land. Users can’t camp on state land, for example, and access could be closed at any time at the whim of the state lands board.
Our public land system is uniquely American – we set aside beautiful open spaces, primarily in the West, for people to enjoy. In some areas, such as along the East and West coasts of the United States, much of the oceanfront property is available only to those who can afford it. In Wyoming, public lands are the great equalizer – everyone is entitled to enjoy the space, regardless of income or any other factor.
These parcels of land aren’t just land. They represent opportunity and equality, two characteristics that define Wyoming values.
Of course, public lands need to be well-maintained. No one would argue that the federal government manages these lands perfectly, certainly. But instead of wasting time cooking up schemes for states to take possession of federal lands, which Wyomingites have demonstrated they do not want, Wyoming legislators should be working with the feds to improve the systems already in place.
They should know that taking on maintenance of these lands makes no financial sense for Wyoming, particularly right now. Firefighting alone is likely more than the state could handle. Instead, lawmakers should be advocating for adequate funding of federal land management agencies, so that they have the tools to best manage the land for all of us.
These lands are irreplaceable. We in Wyoming should recognize these benefits and work to preserve these lands for what they are — an American tradition and a national treasure.