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Public Lands

Antler collectors walk near the border of the National Elk Refuge in May 2015 after collecting elk sheds in Bridger-Teton National Forest.

RIVERTON – A group of lawmakers voted to advance a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday that would specify how federal public land would be managed if it were transferred to Wyoming, despite over two hours of testimony from sportsmen and conservationists who opposed the measure.

In fact, only two members of the public spoke favorably of the constitutional amendment bill to members of the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, which met at Central Wyoming College.

Critics said they feared the state won’t be able to handle the additional land — potentially another 25 million acres on top of Wyoming’s current 3.5 million acres under state ownership. They said state ownership will prohibit access to hunters and anglers and possibly result in a land selloff to the wealthy and well-connected, forever cordoning off the public’s access to Wyoming’s scenic treasurers.

The proposed constitutional amendment is the latest battle in a push throughout the West for state control over public land. Both proponents and critics claim history and law on their side. Proponents say the federal government is mismanaging the land, delaying the permitting of oil, gas and mining projects and closing down roads to block access.

About 100 people attended the meeting, including many sportsmen wearing camouflage and energy industry lobbyists wearing suits, who did not publicly speak.

Wyoming has 17 percent less state lands than it had at statehood, the result of selling or swapping acreage, said Jessi Johnson of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

“With all due respect, I think your time as our legislators could be and should be better spent on the more important issues facing Wyoming,” she said.

Committee member Sen. Eli Bebout asked Johnson whether all of the state’s land sales were for nefarious purposes. He noted the state is selling land to the federal government in Grand Teton National Park.

“You talk about that 17 percent — that’s some good information,” the Riverton Republican said. “Maybe we can look into that further, to see why we did that, who was the benefit of that.”

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Lawmakers described feeling under attack by sportsmen — about 70 who were unable to attend the Riverton meeting emailed comments of opposition to lawmakers— and said that the amendment existed for the purpose of improving recreational access to the terrain and to accelerating permitting of mineral development of the lands.

Legislators said sportsmen misunderstood the point of the constitutional amendment bill, which states land transferred to Wyoming after Jan. 1, 2019, can be traded but there can be no net loss of land in value or acreage and the land must be managed for many uses, including hunting and fishing.

Sen. Larry Hicks, a committee member who spoke passionately in favor of the amendment and challenged almost everyone who opposed it, said over $1 billion in mineral revenue flows into Wyoming coffers a year.

“You think the East and left coast is going to give that up?” he said. “…It will be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s likely to be challenged by one of our neighboring states.”

Hicks, a Republican from Baggs, said the amendment was to prepare the state for the possibility of land transfer.

But Nick Dobric of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership urged the committee to drop the land transfer effort.

“I feel like the efforts of these broad-brush land transfers tend to be a waste of time and are polarizing,” he said.

Connie Wilbert of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club told the committee the lands are a unique heritage and that polling shows that most Wyomingites aren’t interested in changing ownership.

“These people are Wyoming residents who value our public lands and want them to remain as they are under federal ownership and management,” she said. “There’s a little bit more to this story that I also want to tell you: Federal public lands belong to all Americans equally.”

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Wyoming’s 3.5 million acres are managed differently than federal lands, noted Aaron Kindle of the National Wildlife Federation. They are required to generate money for schools. As a result, camping and other activities are prohibited.

Lawmakers have reassured critics of the transfer movement that the public lands would be managed differently, but it’s hard for people to envision the state being able to undertake management for many uses.

“That’s really the only precedent we have to go by,” Kindle said, of school trust lands.

Hicks pushed back at Kindle’s assertion.

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“Are you aware we have a state agency called Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites and State Trails?” Hicks asked.

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Hicks and Bebout, in addition to Republican Sen. Gerald Geis and Reps. Norine Kasperik and Tim Stubson, voted to advance the proposed amendment. The committee’s only Democrat, JoAnn Dayton, opposed the measure.

A subcommittee composed of Hicks, Stubson and Dayton will have a public meeting in the near future to further work on the bill to address people’s concerns.

It’s unlikely those concerns will be allayed, as almost all of the opponents said they don’t want an amendment, period.

Instead, land transfer critics urged lawmakers to follow recommendations from a recently released report that said the state would accomplish more if it worked with counties to produce land use plans, chock full of numbers and data.

Earlier in the day, lawmakers reviewed the report by Y2 Consultants of Jackson. The Legislature commissioned the report in 2015, and the consultants completed it in August. The study determined that there would be few benefits and many liabilities if Wyoming were to manage the lands under federal ownership.

Lawmakers praised the report, including legislators such as Rep. David Miller, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting to hear more about the study.

“I agree with the conclusion of the report is [that] we cannot manage the public lands under the federal mandates that are out there,” Miller said. “The problem is the federal mandates that are being dictated to us from Washington, D.C. It’s not the regulators in Wyoming.”

Chamois Andersen of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation said her organization was encouraged that the committee agreed with the study’s conclusions.

But she questioned whether the study might be used for political purposes.

“We are concerned this allows the committee to open the doors for transfer of public lands and it gives them clout to do so because of all the problems with management of the lands,” she said. “It gives them ammunition and momentum to really move forward with the transfer movement that the majority seems interested in.”

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Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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