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State leaders are looking to buy 1 million acres of land in southern Wyoming
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State leaders are looking to buy 1 million acres of land in southern Wyoming

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Pronghorn

Pronghorn walk through the sage in April 2017 near Dry Creek in southern Natrona County. State officials are eyeing the purchase of 1 million acres of land in southern Wyoming.

CHEYENNE – Wyoming is eyeing the purchase of roughly 1 million acres of land – including 4 million acres in mineral rights – along the Interstate 80 corridor from Occidental Petroleum, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Monday in a joint press conference with legislative leaders.

The purchase would be part of an effort to improve public land access and generate new revenues from its sale.

Gordon just needs the Legislature to go along.

Flanked by Senate President Drew Perkins, House Speaker Steve Harshman, and Joint Appropriations Committee chairs Bob Nicholas and Eli Bebout, Gordon announced his support of two pieces of legislation allowing him to enter into negotiations to purchase the land — Senate File 138 and House Bill 249 – that would authorize the State Loan and Investment Board to appropriate funding from a number of the state’s savings accounts to make the purchase.

“This is an opportunity we saw to move from investing in Wall Street to investing in Wyoming,” Perkins said in the press conference.

Both pieces of legislation, Gordon said, are necessary to begin negotiations on the purchase, which the state hopes to close by the end of summer. No money can be appropriated from the fund without the permission of the Legislature, meaning any money would have to be approved by lawmakers either next winter or in a special session of the Legislature – an option the Legislature could potentially pursue.

While likely to be a significant request for the Legislature to begin working toward sight unseen, the opportunity is too big to overlook, Bebout said.

“A deal like this, the opportunity is now,” said Bebout. “You don’t study this and think about it for a year or two … It’ll be gone. We have to move fairly quickly – from our perspective – for the prospective purchase of this tremendous asset.”

Though no estimate on the price of the land is available – Gordon said it was worth “a lot of money” – the governor and legislative leadership see the purchase as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the state’s ability to raise revenues.

Paired with House Bill 57 – which, if passed, would ease land swaps between the government and the public – the deal could also help improve access to hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands by giving the state greater flexibility to exchange public lands for private ones.

Other lands contained in the deal – which make up a “checkerboard” of stranded parcels along Wyoming’s southern border and stretching into neighboring states like Utah and Colorado – are all currently producing revenue for the company, with many of them offering new potential for new oil, gas and mineral development as well as for ranching and grazing in the spirit of multiple use.

“This isn’t a purchase that is just going to sit idle,” Gordon said. “It is essentially an investment the state is going to make.”

Specifics on the deal will likely be heard out in meetings of the State Loan and Investment Board. Currently, one piece of legislation – House Bill 222 – is weaving its way through the Legislature that, if passed, would exempt SLIB members from certain provisions of the state’s open meetings law, which could be used to investigate details of the purchase prior to pursuing it.

As things stand right now, there is a lot to learn. State officials still need to determine the land’s earning potential and value. However, Gordon said in the press conference that most of the fact-finding will take place after the legislation needed to facilitate the deal – which leadership said has been in the works for roughly six months now – is passed.

As of Monday, the governors of Wyoming’s neighboring states hadn’t been notified of the potential deal, though officials were quick to note Wyoming already owns parcels of land located in other states.

There’s also the hurdle faced in the Legislature, who may see engaging in real estate speculation as outside the traditional scope of government.

With most of those lands currently producing income, state leaders believe the purchase will be worth it. And, moving toward the purchase, they plan to leave no stone unturned to ensure their investment would actually pay dividends.

“Occidental has its idea of value,” Perkins said. “We need to form our idea of value and then, if those are close enough, we can see what we need to do to get a deal done.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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