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Many conservatives in Wyoming and other Western states want to gain control of federal lands.

The so-called sagebrush rebels are frustrated with the amount of time it takes the federal government to permit energy development, which provides revenue and jobs, the closure of roads in national forests, which limits the public’s access, and what they believe are federal policies that have led to massive wildfires throughout the West.

Sagebrush rebels believe states could better manage the lands. They advocate a number of tactics to take control -- from litigation, to federal legislation transferring the lands, to federal ownership and state management.

In the Cowboy State, the Legislature gave Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments $75,000 to study possible management of federal lands, and write a report for lawmakers by November 2016.

But Wyoming already offers an example of what can happen when federal lands are transferred to local control, said University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts: the caverns on Cedar Mountain above Cody.

A 1909 presidential proclamation created the Shoshone Cavern National Monument. The caves never became a huge tourist site, and locals convinced the federal government to delist the monument and hand the land over to local control.

Today, hardly anyone’s heard of the caverns.

Roberts, in his book “Cody’s Cave: National Monuments and the Politics of Public Lands in the 20th Century West” describes what happened to the former national monument.

A gate now bars the entrance. Those who get inside report stalactites and other features have been removed or damaged.

The Star-Tribune recently interviewed Roberts about his book, the history of the caverns and the downside of local control.

Casper Star-Tribune: The book was published in 2012, around the time the Wyoming Legislature began studying the transfer of federal lands. Did that influence the timing of the book? Why did you write the book when you did?

Phil Roberts: Actually, I began work on the book in the 1990s and finished it in the summer of 2004 while I was enjoying two weeks of uninterrupted writing at the AMK Ranch, a University of Wyoming-owned research facility in Grand Teton National Park. I had known about the cavern history for some time, but a visit to the (Buffalo Bill Center of the West) one summer with some faculty colleagues prompted the specific story on the caverns. We were in the parking lot of the (museum) when someone asked me what that apparent road was, zig-zagging far in the distance part way down Cedar Mountain.

During the next several months, knowing the answer, I asked people -- even in Cody -- what the road led to and none of them knew. At the same time, various people in the national media were asserting that the federal government was doing a lousy job of managing our public and how much better it could done by state or local people. I thought, well, here is a historical case that contradicts that assertion exactly, yet no one ever mentions it. Time to do some research.

CST: How did the federal government manage Shoshone Cavern in the 45 years between its designation as a national monument to its delisting? How did locals generally react to the federal government's treatment of the caves?

Roberts: The federal government management was under the direction of the National Park Service -- throughout most the period a seriously under-funded federal agency. The NPS provided passive management, aimed mostly at protecting the cavern, rather than to publicize it, during much of that period. Again, the main reason was lack of money to carry out any site development plan. That didn't happen until the New Deal era of the middle 1930s, when the most progress was made on the site with the building of the "zig-zag" road up the mountain to the cave mouth. The road was built entirely through New Deal programs that hired local people for the work crews. When New Deal programs ended, the National Park Service was authorized no more funds to continue. Even internally in the agency, many NPS managers believed that, given that other priorities in nearby Yellowstone National Park needed money, funding the cave was not the wisest use of federal resources.

CST: You wrote that the 1954 de-listing of the national monument and the land transfer -- all other history aside -- was a success. What components have to be present if there would be a federal land transfer in this present era?

Roberts: It was a "success" for those who argued that the state/local community could operate the cave better than the federal government had. "Success" was in the form of the Park Service seeing this as an opportunity to rid itself of a site that had been nothing but a money drain on them for the years they had jurisdiction over it. And, of course, "success" came in the form of locals saying, "Now, we'll show the federal government how to operate the caverns as a great tourist site!" But in my definition, the "success" was in getting Congress to put the site out of the hands of the federal government and into local control. Obviously, that was the limit of "success" because as operations continued, it became apparent that the project was far too expensive for non-federal entities to develop.

CST: In 1954, the city of Cody entered into an agreement with local businessman Claud Brown to develop the area as Spirit Mountain Caverns. Was Brown successful? What were the challenges for him and subsequent owner Harold Oldham?

Roberts: Claud Brown was a well-meaning, hard-working man who believed in the cavern so strongly that he spent a career trying to make the site a success. For instance, he built walkways, mostly of wood, within the cavern as a means of making it internally more accessible. He was hampered by monetary limitations, but also vexed, as the NPS had been, on questions of making the cavern more accessible to automobile traffic. He proposed an aerial tramway to the cave entrance from below Cedar Mountain, but despite spending months courting possible investors, he had to abandon the idea as too expensive. He may have been one of the last people to be forced to admit that the site could not be made successful through private enterprise or as a concession from local government.

CST: In the early months after the caverns were transferred to the city of Cody, some Wyomingites, including Gov. Milward Simpson, pushed for the transfer of concessions in Yellowstone to the state. What happened?

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Roberts: Simpson was angered by what he considered shoddy treatment of visitors to Yellowstone. He blamed the NPS as well as the concessionaires for the problem. Consequently, he told the NPS that the state of Wyoming ought to take over the concessions from the private monopoly then doing them because the state could do a better job. Obviously, Simpson was an intelligent man who never questioned federal ownership and operation of the park. The result was to move the NPS, the Interior Department and the Congress to force concessionaires in the park, through laws and regulations, to improve service or risk losing their facilities and their exclusive contracts. Service improved, according to most sources.

CST: In 1978, the Bureau of Land Management controlled the area again. How did that transpire?

Roberts: After years of neglect, when later concessionaires seemed more anxious to ship off the resources within the cavern than to try to make it a functional tourist attraction, the city of Cody reluctantly realized that it had no choice but to turn the land back to the federal government. There had been a "fail-safe" clause inserted in the original legislation stating that if the town could no longer operate it, the cavern had to be returned to the federal government.

CST: After researching and writing your book, what have you concluded about the transfer of federal lands to local control?

Roberts: I genuinely fear any federal transfer of land to the states. Not only is this a lesson about the inability of state/local entities to finance such operations, but one need only look at how various Midwestern states mishandled their state lands in the 19th century. Each of the states had huge land grants from the federal government at statehood...

In some of those states, their legislatures turned over vast tracts to railroads, sometimes legitimately thinking the land would be put to good use, but mostly through fraud and kick-backs. The drafters of the Wyoming Constitution, knowing about that history, made sure sections of the Constitution would keep that from happening with all kinds of rules about state sales of those state lands.

But as it appears from bills offered up from places like Utah, those kinds of rules wouldn't apply if all federal lands within a state were handed to a state now. Notice that I didn't say, "handed back" because, as the Wyoming Constitution even recognizes in a section that cannot be repealed, all federal lands within Wyoming are owned by the federal government. Should Congress somehow turn over such lands now, I am convinced that the former public lands would be sold off -- and not necessarily to the highest bidder, nor to Wyomingites. I'd expect huge tracts being bought by Chinese billionaires, Russian oligarchs or Arab shaikhs. The latter wouldn't have any trouble imposing sharia law on those lands, given recent legislation as to exclusively of private ownership. The land would be used to enrich certain people and what now is our greatest legacy, the once-public lands, would be closed off to us. Bad deal for Wyoming, and legislators who propose such clap-trap ought to be ashamed of themselves for representing all of those non-Wyoming greedy land-grabbers.

CST: You wrote about the "flawed assumption" by sagebrush rebels that federal lands belong to the states. But these folks argue that the federal government transferred vast amounts of acres to the Eastern states, and did not do so in the West. They say that's unfair treatment, and the West deserves what is owed to her. Who's right?

ROBERTS: How do they explain Wyoming Constitution, Article 21, Section 28?... It is foolish to say that the federal government didn't give away land to the West. For instance, the Union Pacific Railroad gained some 4 million acres of Wyoming as a direct gift from the federal government... Homesteaders gained free land from the federal government through a series of increasingly generous homestead acts passed through the 19th century and well into the 20th century. One of the most celebrated was the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1908, often referred to as the Mondell bill, named for the sponsor in Congress, U. S. Representative Frank Mondell of Wyoming. As generous as these laws were, vast areas outside national forests and parks remained in the early 1930s. The General Land Office literally couldn't give it away! And, of course, Congress was wise in those days to limit land donations to homesteaders in small amounts so as not to create a landed aristocracy. I suppose they could have handed out the entire public domain to say, the British-owned open-range ranch companies or big operators who wanted to use it for free to graze their cattle. Too bad for those operations that the "sagebrush rebel" crowd of today wasn't watching over the public interest in those times!

That's the real story of federal lands in Wyoming.

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Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock.

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