During this year’s state legislative session, observers kept watch on a House bill that would have required the federal government to transfer all public lands to the state by Dec. 31, 2018, except for national parks and monuments and military installations.
The bill‘s sponsors believe the federal government, with excessive rules and long delays, is stifling development of oil and gas, agriculture and even recreation. They say state ownership would be better, especially at a time when revenues from minerals that the state relies on heavily to fund government have plummeted.
Environmental and sportsmen groups opposed the bill, believing the transfer of public lands will ultimately result in a selloff of the state’s prized terrain to the wealthy, closing off access to recreation, blunting the state’s tourism industry and altering the landscape forever.
People waited as the 2016 legislative session marched forward to Feb. 12, the last day bills could be introduced. Any legislation that didn’t clear introduction by then was dead.
Chamois Andersen of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation studied a list of bills Feb. 12 that were scheduled for introduction and noticed the land transfer measure. She described feeling nervous as the day wore on. She opposed the bill.
“It was the 11th hour, and it was just about to come on the docket,” Andersen said. “I was on pins and needles. Then right before it was about to be introduced, Rosie (Berger, a member of GOP House leadership) said ‘OK. That’s the end of the 2016 session. No new bills will be introduced.’
“It made the message loud and clear to the rest of the House: Don’t come forward introducing these bills.”
Such is the power of leadership in the Wyoming Legislature. In recent years, many bills aimed at transferring control over public lands to the state failed to become laws. The moderate GOP legislative leadership frequently blocked the measures from proceeding through the legislative process.
But almost all of those moderates are leaving the House, and two of the lawmakers eyeing leadership roles next year should they win their Nov. 8 re-election races — Sen. Eli Bebout for Senate president and Rep. David Miller for House speaker — are among the legislators most enthusiastic about state control over public lands.
Bebout has sponsored two measures aimed at easing federal control over the lands. Miller sponsored four. The lawmakers, both Republicans from Riverton, were involved in even more bills when considering legislation that was sponsored by committees on which they served, said Stephanie Kessler of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which recently released an analysis of all land transfer bills since 2013.
Depending on which side one falls on the land transfer debate, the influence of Bebout and Miller could be welcome or dreaded.
“We’re in financial stress right now as a state. We’re over $700 million short in our School Foundation Account,” Miller said, referring to the account that pays for K-12 education. “That’s due to property taxes and ad valorem taxes is hurting greatly.”
Opponents will be watching leadership, Andersen said.
“If their inclination is to transfer public lands, then we’ve got a serious fight against us,” she said. “Leadership is instrumental in any bill that materializes at the Legislature. So we’ve got to watch that very closely. Every single member of the Legislature is also important in terms of election. When people go to vote, they need to know they could be casting a vote” for someone who supports lands transfer.
While Miller would prefer Congress to transfer the lands to Wyoming, Bebout said he doesn’t want to go that far. Bebout envisions a scenario in which the federal government continues to own the lands, with the state controlling their management. He said the federal government might be interested in an agreement with Wyoming if it could save money.
“There’s different types of bills,” Bebout said. “You can’t carve a blanket statement about the public lands. I think the bills that are dead on arrival are to transfer all those lands, and I’m opposed to that.”
Both lawmakers said they are awaiting a report due next month that will look at the feasibility of Wyoming managing the lands. The report will shape any future legislation. The legislators also said they were not interested in selling off the lands en masse. They said they don’t want sportsmen to lose access.
Miller is considering a bill that would amend the Constitution to prohibit a net loss of acreage if the federal government transfers the lands, he said. Andersen, of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, said that the Wyoming Constitution prohibits the transfer of lands to the state.
“A lot of access is denied by a little bit of private land next to some public land areas,” Miller said. “So when we say ‘no net loss,’ that allows the state to trade parcels or purchase or sell parcels in a small way to improve access to the Bridger-Teton or the Wind River (national forests) to private sections that may need to be swapped out or purchased to benefit the public.”
If Democrat Hillary Clinton is elected to the White House, Bebout said he foresees more regulations over the lands.
“We might have a chance to be able to look at and study the possibility of Wyoming lands being managed by Wyoming people, accountable to the Wyoming Legislature and people,” he said.
Legislative observer Mike Kusiek of Laramie, who spends much time recreating on public lands, believes the terrain would ultimately go up for sale if the state owned it. Wealthy, powerful people would pressure elected officials, he said. That’s why he wants the land to remain under federal control.
“The reason people live here is the quality of life,” Kusiek said. “As a person who lives in the West and pays attention, it’ll forever change the state when you start selling off the resource.”
Kusiek believes transfer of lands would be a disaster. He thinks people need to learn lawmakers’ voting records before going to the polls. And if lawmakers who support state control are elected, he hopes the public will pressure them to abandon the cause.
“It’s not a safari club. It’s not a bunch of signs saying it’s private property,” he said. “That’s not what the West is.”