CHEYENNE -- A program preserving parts of Wyoming’s landscape will live for another year, but supporters are concerned by increasing opposition in the state Legislature.
The program gives private landowners state money to preserve their property for scenery and wildlife.
The sponsors of House Bill 106 wanted to eliminate the funding, but the bill died Monday because it failed to meet the deadline for having a House floor debate.
Many of the easement projects help protect sage grouse – a bird whose existence has a big effect on state revenues.
If the bird were listed as an endangered species, Wyoming’s coal and natural gas industries would be subject to restrictions that could shut down some operations and prevent further development. The Legislature allocated $10 million for easements to protect sage grouse in 2012.
Despite the high stakes, the reason for ending the program is simple, said Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse.
“I do not believe that public tax dollars should be appropriated for the gain of private, individual businesses,” she said. “I have no problem with conservation easements in general, but I think they need to be funded by philanthropic organizations who feel there is a need to do it.”
Rep. John Eklund backed HB 106. The Cheyenne Republican said he was concerned that the state might not have enough money in the future for the easements.
Conservation easements are contracts between the state and landowners that implement the prohibition of subdivisions, said John McKinley, a Cheyenne attorney who specializes in easements.
State-funded conservation easements don't require private contributions. After the Legislature allocates money for an easement, the landowner and environmental advocates raise complementary funds. Then the federal government matches the combined money.
There would be less confidence in the projects and less financial support without the state’s initial investment, said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. The wildlife federation donated and raised funds for past easement projects.
The easements have built bridges between ranchers and environmental activists, Kilpatrick said. Both groups want to preserve the land and protect it for future generations.
There’s additional incentive for the ranchers. Conservation easements are useful to many families planning wills, said Pam Dewell, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust.
“They can help families raise capital without liquidating acreage or cattle and can help reduce estate and income taxes,” she said. “This helps older ranchers retire and younger ranchers afford property based on ag values, not amenity values.”
People who care about open spaces, livelihood, industry and wildlife are excited, Kilpatrick said. “It’s interesting that all at once there’s pushback. I don’t understand the logic of it.”
Wallis, a co-author of HB 106, and others in the House opposed another easement bill last week in a floor debate. Wallis proposed an amendment that would have eliminated funding for 14 new easement proposals in House Bill 81. Sending them to the chopping block would save the state more than $7 million.
“Essentially you’re using tax dollars, which are mostly generated from energy industry, to shut off these lands to create private wilderness areas that can no longer be publicly used for future generations. And we’re using tax dollars to use it,” Wallis said.
Her amendment failed, and the 14 projects in HB 81 moved one step closer to becoming reality. The bill passed the House and is waiting to be heard in the Senate.
The Legislature appropriates money each year to the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, a conservation arm of the state that conducts easements and other environmental protection initiatives.
Since the trust fund’s inception in 2005, its board of directors has spent $12 million on 35 easement projects covering about 140,000 acres of land, said Bob Budd, executive director of the trust. Forty percent of the trust’s budget this year is set aside for the 14 easements, Budd said.
The contracts essentially last forever. It’s like handing over the deed to a house or the title of a car to a buyer. Once the ink on the contract is dry, there’s no going back, McKinley said.
Easements aren’t rubber-stamped. There are 19 reviews of each easement, and state lawmakers conduct nearly half of them in the State Capitol.
“When my board evaluates them, it goes very deeply into what the public benefits are,” said Budd, of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.
Each easement is tailored to the needs and wants of the landowner.
“People like to talk about easements like they’re little cheeses in a wrapper and it’s always the same,” Budd said. “They’re not.”
Future oil and gas drilling does not have to be excluded from easements. But strip mining is forbidden.
“They may not be for everybody. The landowner needs to spend a lot of time deciding whether they want to do one and how they want it structured,” McKinley said.