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The Sweetwater County Commission has joined sportsmen's groups in opposing state management or ownership of federal lands.

Meanwhile, on Thursday lawmakers received a handout from the Wyoming Sportsmen Alliance, which represents nine outdoors organizations, urging them to vote against two federal land bills in the Legislature.

The alliance represents about 50,000 hunters and anglers across the state, said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, a group member.

But lawmakers who support state management or ownership of federal lands are unmoved. They believe Wyoming has a legal right to the land because the federal government has turned over acreage to other states.

They say state officials would be more responsive and flexible to people’s concerns than the federal bureaucracy.

Sweetwater commissioners sent the Jan. 29 letter to lawmakers representing the county in Cheyenne.

The commissioners outlined a position that the state cannot afford to manage the lands. It noted that the Bureau of Land Management spends $106 million a year and has 668 full-time employees to manage 18 million surface acres and 40 million subsurface acres of minerals.

“Sweetwater County believes that, due to the unaffordable costs of administering acquired federal lands, the state will be forced to sell portions of these lands to private entities,” the letter states.

“Under private ownership, it would be highly likely that these lands would preclude public access to prime wildlife habitat and public lands that form the foundation of the quality of life we all enjoy in Wyoming.”

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who is pushing for the passage of one of the bills, had read the letter.

“My views are still rock-solid,” he said.

Bebout said the permitting for minerals development, the bread and butter for Wyoming’s coffers, would be faster and less expensive if administered by the state.

Bebout supports Senate File 56, under which the state would commission a $100,000 study on management of federal lands. Last month, the bill was amended to eliminate references to federal transfer of ownership of the lands to the state.

SF56 has passed the Senate and is awaiting introduction in the House.

Bebout said he was a bit surprised by the letter, since Sweetwater County Commission Chairman Wally Johnson has complained about the feds.

Johnson confirmed Thursday night that he is frustrated by the feds, but that doesn’t mean the solution is state ownership or management, he said.

“Seventy percent of Sweetwater County is federal land,” he said. “We have very few fences on those lands. It allows the public access. That’s our heritage. It’s been a great asset to Sweetwater County.”

The other measure before the Legislature, House Bill 209, states that the feds would return land ownership to the state. In coming years, a committee would meet to address management issues. The bill would provide $25,000 to the committee.

HB209 passed the House on Friday and now heads to the Senate.

If the state were to sell those lands, 95 percent of the proceeds would return to the U.S., which is typical in most states that sold land once owned by the feds, said Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, the bill’s sponsor.

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Miller said that if the feds don’t respond to the state’s request for ownership, there could be a lawsuit.

“I don’t know if that will be necessary, but that’s clearly a possibility in the future because we have not been equal to the other states east of Wyoming, because they control so much of our lands,” he said.

Millions of acres of public lands were supposed to be returned to Wyoming after statehood but never were. In the 1970s, Congress adopted an act that assumes that the federal government will manage them forever, Miller said.

Even if legally Wyoming has the right to have the land tuned over to the state, its residents may not want it.

The sportsmen's group is pointing lawmakers to a 2013 study by Colorado College that found that 66 percent of Wyomingites do not want land management to change.

“We see a lot of legislators supporting it,” he said. “I’d like to know where this constituency support is coming from. We see a fundamental disconnect.”

Bebout said that he too is a sportsmen who supports a new management scheme. He noted that Robert Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, is in support of SF56.

If the two bills pass, they head to the desk of Gov. Matt Mead, who has not yet taken a position on either of them, said his spokeswoman, Michelle Panos.

“The governor has proposed a pilot project regarding the possible management of federal lands in Wyoming,” she said in an email. “He always believes that state and local management should be the preferred alternative.”

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Reach political reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at laura.hancock@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter: @laurahancock.

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