A Wyoming Legislature task force on Thursday decided it wants an in-depth study into plans for the state to gain control over federal lands, despite an opinion from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office that such an attempt would rest on shaky legal footing.
Earlier this year, the Wyoming Legislature ordered a legislative task force to study the issue of federal land ownership in the Cowboy State. Many people in Wyoming believe federal government regulation slows grazing, mineral development and other activities on the land it owns in Wyoming — about half of the state.
Yet a May 4 memorandum to Gov. Matt Mead’s staff from Wyoming Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah I. Williamson concluded that an ongoing attempt by Utah to take control of federal lands in that state is “highly unlikely to succeed in court because its legal theories rest on weak foundations.”
Success is similarly unlikely for Wyoming, Williamson wrote in the opinion, obtained by the Star-Tribune on Thursday from the governor’s office.
The four lawmakers on the Wyoming Task Force on Transfer of Public Lands have read the opinion and have discussed it during talks on regaining lands from the federal government. Yet on Thursday at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission building in Casper, they ordered legislative staff to write a report of its study of the issue. The study will be sent to the agriculture and minerals interim committees, as well as the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee.
The task force also ordered legislative staff to draft a bill, for potential sponsorship by one of the committees, to create another committee to study the issue for four years.
The task force members are Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton; Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs; Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton; and Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie.
They said that the section of the Wyoming Constitution that prohibits the state from trying to claim federal lands also contains a promise from the federal government to return some lands to Wyoming. That was pointed out to the lawmakers by Ken Ivory, a Utah state lawmaker who is leading that state’s take-back efforts.
Ivory said Wyoming, Utah and other Western states have similar words in their constitutions or their acts of admission to the United States, also known as enabling acts.
The lawmakers are not interested in taking control of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, Miller said.
Taking control of federal lands does not necessarily mean ownership. It could just mean the state taking over land management, while the federal government retains ownership, Miller said.
Complaints about federal land ownership came from Bruce Hinchey of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, a trade group for the state’s oil and gas businesses. He said applications for permits to drill from the federal government take nine months to 400 days. With the state they take two to three weeks. More drilling is occurring on state and private lands, he said.
Since 1954, federal grazing permits have decreased by more than 50 percent, said Jim Magagna,of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.