Congress will resist transferring federal public lands to Wyoming because it would mean sacrificing over $1 billion a year that the U.S. Treasury rakes in from mineral development, state lawmakers say.
Yet, the lawmakers still want to explore state ownership and management of public lands — an effort that sportsmen say is a waste of the state’s time and resources.
At meeting Wednesday in Riverton, the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee will review a newly released report that concluded Wyoming would still be entangled in the federal bureaucracy of conflicting and expensive rules and regulations if the state managed the lands under federal ownership.
The committee, which is meeting at Central Wyoming College, will also discuss amending the Wyoming Constitution to say there would be no net loss or gain in the size or value of the public lands if they were transferred to Wyoming’s ownership.
People who support state control over the lands argue that the federal government takes too much time permitting mineral development, is closing off roads and blocking access and making decisions that lead to large wildfires. Sportsmen and others who oppose the movement don’t believe the state will be financially equipped to handle the amount of land under consideration – currently 3.5 million acres and proposed to increase by another 25 million. A large wildfire or act of Mother Nature, they say, would be too expensive for the state to combat.
Sen. Eli Bebout, a member of the committee, said hunters and anglers have been contacting lawmakers, voicing their opposition to state ownership. Sportsmen are concerned the land would be sold off to the highest bidder, and they would forever lose access to Wyoming’s vistas and landscapes.
But those fears are unfounded, Bebout said.
“That’s gotten completely blown out of proportion, in my estimation,” the Riverton Republican said.
Bebout thinks it’s unlikely that any president or Congress would let go of federal public lands.
“We’re not trying to set it up for the lands to be transferred,” he said.
But he thinks a constitutional amendment is prudent in case the state did assume control of federal lands, he said, noting states throughout the West are discussing similar efforts.
Committee chairwoman Rep. Norine Kasperik said there is a chance the federal government will transfer public land to Wyoming, but “not without a lot of discussion and change,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for us to take time and discuss it.”
“I am not adverse to the transfer of public lands to the state,” she said. “We’ve really struggled with federal regulation overreach, conflicting opinion, conflicting laws, we’ve had moneys withheld because of federal actions. There’s lots of reasons why I think it’s important for us to look at it.”
Chris Merrill of the Wyoming Outdoor Council said there’s a reason sportsmen are bombarding lawmakers with messages against changing ownership and management of the land: “I think if you’re truly concerned about access to public lands, then you want to keep them the way they are, which is lands that belong to the public, first of all,” he said.
“If they’re not interested in taking over these lands and selling them as Sen. Bebout is saying – I take him at his word – then he and the rest of the Legislature should drop this effort altogether, because their constituents don’t want it. The people of Wyoming don’t want it,” he said. “And it’s time to move on to more important things.”
Shane Cross, an attorney for Trout Unlimited, a rancher south of Douglas and president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, opposes transfer.
He said Wyoming receives $1.30 in services from the federal government for every $1 paid in taxes – much higher than states such as California, which receives less than $1 back in federal services.
Wyoming would not become more independent from the federal government if it were to control the federal lands. The state would struggle without help from Washington, he said.
Cross believes lawmakers want to provide the oil and gas industry more access to the land. And that’s perfectly fine, if the state had an open and honest discussion and decides that’s the direction the Wyoming should go.
“I think we should be informed that that’s who is pushing this, so we can make that decision,” he said.
Kasperik, the committee’s chairwoman, said she has received emails for and against land transfer. She looks forward to the public discussion.
“I think this will be an opportunity to give it an airing, so to speak,” she said.
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock