Giving Wyoming more control over public land is unlikely to result in a financial windfall because state regulators would still have to adhere to federal laws over the terrain, a new report found.
The two-year study of state management of public land was completed Aug. 31 by Y2 Consultants in Jackson. The state hired the natural resources firm shortly after the 2015 legislative session, when lawmakers adopted a bill to fund the $75,000 study.
The 350-page report looked at land under the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The Legislature did not include national parks or military installations in the study.
A movement afoot throughout the West, which contains much of the country’s public spaces, has pushed for the transfer of the land to the states. Its adherents are frustrated with the time it takes the feds to approve permits for mineral development and by the closed-off access to roads and recreation. They say bureaucratic red tape and rules are hurting local economies. They believe local management would be more responsive.
Sportsmen have generally opposed state management of public land, warning that land will be too complex and expensive for Wyoming to manage and will result in states selling the most picturesque and mineral-rich acres to the wealthy and well-connected, forever blocking the public’s access.
The Wyoming study was different than ones commissioned by legislatures and counties in Utah, Nevada and Idaho, which evaluated the federal government transferring the land to the states and the states owning the land. Wyoming’s study assumed the federal government still owned the land, but the state would manage it.
But the Wyoming study states many people would need to be hired to accommodate the management of public land. The Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments manages only 3.5 million acres and employs 96 people full-time.
The state is looking at managing an additional 25 million acres. The BLM has 800 full-time employees in Wyoming. Almost 530 people work for the Bridger-Teton, Shoshone and Bighorn national forests, the report states.
With federal ownership, the rules and laws governing public lands would remain intact. Wyoming would have to create affirmative action plans to adhere to federal labor laws. The state would also have to comply with complex government contracting rules and nevertheless would have to continue to share mineral wealth and recreation and grazing fees with the federal government, the report states.
Most significantly, the report concludes that Congress is unlikely to kick back more money to Wyoming under a state management scheme.
Most of the royalties and fees that go back to Washington are earmarked for programs under the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the report states. Wyoming currently receives 48 percent of the mineral revenue generated in Wyoming on public lands – about $1 billion two years ago. The federal government receives 52 percent.
“It is unlikely that Wyoming would receive more of that share with a transfer of management unless it were negotiated and written into necessary legislation as a form of payment for the state to take over the management duties of the federal agencies,” the report states.
The report concludes the state cannot exclusively manage the land for profit, as it does with the 3.5 million surface acres of school trust lands. The state is required by law to manage the trust lands to raise money for public schools and other beneficiaries.
Several federal laws require public land to be managed for the needs of the various industries and recreational enthusiasts. Public land also must be managed under the concept known as sustainable yield, which means continuing the supply of natural resources through regrowth or reproduction to ensure replacement of the part that has been harvested.
Two years ago, the BLM spent almost $100 million to operate in Wyoming, from permitting to fighting wildfires to construction, the report states. That year it generated about $2 billion in revenues in the state, from mining to timber to recreation fees.
In that same year, the Forest Service collected over $9 million in Wyoming from activities such as logging, mining and grazing. But its expenses were over $44 million.
“Ultimately, without significant changes to federal law, the greatest challenge would be that the state would be inheriting the same bureaucratic maze of overlapping, entwined, often conflicting federal mandates established in the labyrinth of laws and directives laid out by Congress,” the study states. “These mandates and directives are frequently underfunded, contradictory and may regularly and suddenly change according to the political whims of a particular year.”
Federal laws require extensive environmental reviews with which the state would have to comply. State employees would be dispatched across Wyoming to gather input from stakeholders ranging from industry to communities to tribes for new activity on federal land. The state would need attorneys to help its agencies comply with the federal Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees the public’s right to government paperwork, data and other records.
Two years ago, the BLM in Wyoming processed 56 FOIA requests from law firms, trade organizations, ranches, businesses and environmental groups.
“The FOIA workload is due in large part to the multi-use nature of federal public lands and how the balance should be struck between them,” the report states.
Conflicting interests over the public lands are leading to more lawsuits that Wyoming would be dragged into, the report states.
Sportsmen and public lands
The study is vindication to sportsmen, who said it’s time for the state to abandon notions of state control over federal land.
“Wyoming sportsmen and women are not surprised by the conclusion offered up by the long-awaited Study on the Management of Public Lands,” Max Ludington of the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance said in a statement. “The study concludes state management of federal lands would be ‘unlikely to accomplish the goal of markedly better managed federal lands and management decisions.’”
Cheyenne sportsman Earl DeGroot, a hunter who organizes the Wyoming Sportsmen for Federal Lands page on Facebook, hopes the study will be taken seriously.
“I hope the Legislature will consider the findings of this report, and the overwhelming opposition that Wyoming sportsmen have expressed, and finally put an end to this effort,” DeGroot said in a statement released by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “…The focus of our legislators should be on the real land management solutions and partnerships that will benefit our state.”
The report offers several recommendations to state and local leaders to achieve more desirable decisions from the federal government on public land. The recommendations would save the state money and are a safer bet than land management, the report states.
“For example, it would be very beneficial if the state could financially support the gathering of social and economic data that could demonstrate — with cold, hard facts — the impacts of federal management decisions on communities,” the report states.
Local governments have the opportunity to write policy plans and submit them to federal agencies, which are required by law to consider them. The study contains examples from in and around Wyoming of successful partnerships between the federal government, states and industry.
The report hails a partnership between conservation groups and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association on Wilderness Study areas, which have been in a holding pattern for decades because Congress won’t follow the law and either designate them as official wilderness areas or release them as regular public lands.
The report also suggests the state propose to Congress management of small pieces of land instead of 25 million acres.
The recommendation rang familiar to Casper Rep. Tim Stubson, a member of a legislative committee that will review the report Nov. 9 in Riverton. The Republican ran for U.S. House earlier this year with a platform that included management of small pieces of land.
“You give the state the opportunity to prove it can responsibly manage those lands, and if you make those mistakes you do so on a small scale, versus a large scale,” he said.
Rep. David Miller said he’s not surprised that the study concluded that state management wouldn’t be successful with Washington still involved.
“The parties are always going to be disagreement at what needs to be done,” he said. “It would be a real nightmare.”
The Riverton Republican, who may become House speaker next year, wants transfer of the lands to the state.
He criticized the study as rehashing numbers that were already publicly available. Missing from the study, he said, was potential mineral development that could happen under state control. For instance, he said in the past decade, numerous uranium mining permits were denied or were stalled. Those should have been factored into the study, he said.
About 70 percent of the state’s revenue comes from mineral taxes. But oil, gas and coal are down and Wyoming is facing revenue shortfalls in the hundreds of millions. Lands transfer could be a solution because the state would allow more minerals production, Miller said.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said. “Are we going to cut services as mineral production goes down? Are we going to cut education as mineral production goes down? The bottom line is we’ll have to unless another tax can replace this.”