A Wyoming legislative committee is pushing a bill in the upcoming session to put up $100,000 to study the idea of seeking the transfer of federal lands to the state.
The effort is part of a wider push in which several Western states have demanded the federal government transfer lands to them. Proponents say states could manage lands better. Opponents, including some national environmental groups, say the effort could be the first step toward privatization.
Utah passed a law a few years ago demanding that the federal government hand over 31 million acres, about half the land in the state, by Dec. 31, 2014. The federal government ignored the deadline.
Montana, Nevada and Idaho all have expressed interest in obtaining federal lands.
Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, is co-chairman of the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee that drafted the bill. He said people in Wyoming are closer to the land and able to manage it better.
Wyoming needs to show it can manage the land and that it would be in the state's financial interest to take it over, Stubson said Monday.
"And without some of those basic answers, we'd look pretty foolish going to Congress or anywhere else and demanding a transfer of any of the state lands," he said.
The bill would exempt lands managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That would leave lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, excluding wilderness areas, for study for transfer.
The bill specifies that the state would pledge to continue to allow access to the lands for hunting, fishing and recreation, "subject to closure for special circumstances including public safety and environmental sensitivity."
"This isn't a fire sale of public lands into private hands," Stubson said. "That's been proposed numerous times throughout history, and there's always heartburn about that, and understandably so."
Rep. Norine Kasperik, R-Gillette, served on the select committee and also supports the bill.
"States in the East that have very little federal land can tax their properties and can regulate their properties, can make decisions about how the land is managed," Kasperik said Monday. "In states like Wyoming, Utah and a lot of the other western states, it's more difficult because you have to communicate and cooperate with a lot more different people."
Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, voted against the bill in committee. He said he's concerned about the prospect of the state taking over responsibility for fire-fighting and other duties on new land.
Blake said he's also concerned that transferring federal lands could lead to privatization and land-swaps that would leave the public fenced out from prime hunting and fishing grounds. "That does concern me. Even though it says it won't, I'm concerned that it could be," he said.
Tim Preso, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Montana, said he thinks the push is coming from interests that have failed to change federal land management to their liking and are now taking a run at eliminating federal land ownership.
Preso said the transfer issue has popped up every 20 years or so over the past century. He said it always has died when people realize it could reduce access to public land — a fundamental quality of life in the West.
Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael leads a task force with the Conference of Western Attorneys General looking at legal issues concerning the transfer issue. He said the conference intends to come out with a paper giving solid legal analysis without taking sides.
"Ultimately, we hope there will be something where we say, 'OK, these are the arguments that can be made, pro and con on various issues, and kind of develop a white paper that people can rely on,' Michael said. "Because the issue does pop up here, there and everywhere."