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Wyoming residents voice opposition to public lands amendment

A crowd, with many donning “Keep it Public, Wyoming” stickers, listens to speakers during a Wyoming public lands rally Nov. 5 at the Fort Caspar campground in Casper.

Few people want the state to pass a constitutional amendment to ease the transfer of federal public land to Wyoming, according to a recent poll. But state lawmakers are pursuing one.

Sportsmen say the question over whether the amendment is desired in Wyoming — and the larger issue over who should control public lands — will likely be one of the most intense battles when the 64th Legislature convenes Jan. 10 in Cheyenne.

But a lawmaker who is one of the most ardent supporters of changing the Wyoming Constitution in anticipation of possibly obtaining the land said he now doubts the legislation will pass.

Before a constitutional amendment ends up on the ballot, two-thirds of the House and Senate must adopt it, noted Rep. David Miller, one of the Legislature’s biggest proponents of land transfer.

“It won’t pass the two-thirds vote required out of the House or Senate,” the Riverton Republican said. “I think everyone’s screamed loud enough.”

Wyoming’s public lands are scenic and rich with fish and wildlife, a legacy for the residents of the state and country. But below them is mineral wealth that makes the state one of the most productive oil, gas and mining regions in the country.

And that’s the rub.

State lawmakers, such as Miller, who want the federal government to transfer the land to the state eye declining revenues from the extraction industry. They blame Washington for slow permitting and believe Wyoming regulators are faster and more responsive. The state’s coffers could again be filled if the state obtained the land.

On the other side of the debate are scores of conservationists and sportsmen who point to surveys showing a majority of Wyomingites want the lands to remain under the federal government, as imperfect as it is.

Opponents, such as Sweetwater County Commission Chairman Wally Johnson, say they don’t believe the state legally or practically could handle the lands. Currently the state manages only 3.5 million acres and the transfer could add another 25 million. A large wildfire could wipe out the budget for the lands and result in the state auctioning them off to the highest bidder, forever barricading the public from Wyoming’s famed open spaces.

“I think the track record with the state handling lands goes back to the 1890s, when those sections were given to the state of Wyoming,” Johnson said. “Then you fast forward and look at the acreage — it’s roughly half of what was given to the state.”

The constitutional amendment that will be introduced to the Legislature requires the lands, if they are ever transferred to Wyoming, be managed for multiple uses, including hunting, fishing, energy development, grazing and other activities. Lands may be exchanged.

In mid-December, lawmakers met and amended the legislation to appease opponents, who have shown up to meetings in droves. Amendments include a prohibition on the sale of lands, except for public health or welfare purposes or to public entities. If lands are exchanged, they must be in the same county and of similar value.

Though lawmakers tried to assuage opponents’ concerns, most sportsmen will continue to oppose the amendment.

Nick Dobric of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is asking where the supporters are. He believes only a few lawmakers are driving the issue. At recent meetings, few people have stood to back the constitutional amendment.

“Some of the legislators said that they want the state to be in control because there will be local input. Well, here’s local input that we’ve been giving constantly. And they’re not listening.”

Retiring Sen. Gerald Geis, R-Worland, sat on a committee that composed the legislation for a constitutional amendment, which he supports.

No one from the public supported the issue because the sportsmen and conservation groups have misinformed the public about the intent of the legislation, he said.

“The environmental groups come out,” he said. “They think we’re going to shut it down and run it like private lands, and that’s not the case. They’re misinterpreting what it could do for the state of Wyoming.”

Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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