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Public Lands

Horses graze in February 2015 outside Dubois, where private acreage borders swaths of federal public land. A controversial measure would have amended the Wyoming Constitution to specify how federal public land would be managed if Washington transferred it to the state.

The night before the Wyoming Legislature convened, a group of about 20 lawmakers met in Cheyenne with representatives from a sportsmen’s organization. Their conversation centered on a Colorado law that provides money for local governments to respond to federal land plans — effectively giving municipalities a better chance of influencing the discussion.

The Wyoming Wildlife Federation wasn’t asking lawmakers to sponsor an identical bill but rather “to move this conversation beyond management and to solutions,” said Jessi Johnson, the federation’s public lands coordinator.

The gathering, which was attended by nearly a quarter of the Legislature, suggest lawmakers are already looking at alternatives to a controversial constitutional amendment intended to transfer control of public lands away from the federal government.

Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout said he still plans to introduce the public lands amendment, although he doesn’t know if he has enough support from lawmakers to place it on the ballot.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen with that,” the Riverton Republican said Friday.

Senate Joint Resolution 3 would specify in the Wyoming Constitution how federal public land would be managed if Washington transferred it to the states. It needs approval by two-thirds of the Senate and House. Then voters would decide whether to change the Constitution.

Legislative observers said their own informal tallies of lawmakers suggest the bill will fail, the result of vocal sportsmen who adamantly oppose transferring federal public land because of concerns over access.

“Our impression as of right now is it doesn’t have enough to pass,” Johnson said. “We’ve heard that from a couple legislators as well. However, that isn’t written in stone.”

Cheyenne Republican Rep. Landen Brown doesn’t think at this point he will vote for the measure. He doesn’t believe the state has the resources to increase its land possession from 3 million to 25 million acres.

“I won’t speak for the body, but I would say it faces an uphill battle in both chambers,” said Brown, a freshman.

Bebout said he doesn’t think it’s likely that Washington will transfer the land but that the state should be prepared in case it happens.

He said he is unsure when he’s going to introduce the bill and to what legislative committee he would assign it.

Bebout supports the effort because the U.S. Forest Service has closed roads, decreasing hunters’ and anglers’ access, Bebout said. It takes a decade or more to permit oil and gas development and grazing, he added, which is too slow when market conditions for business constantly fluctuate.

He blames the federal government for the virtual disappearance of the timber industry in Wyoming. Federal regulations make it impossible to log, he said, and its management of land has made the West vulnerable to wildfires.

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Bebout showed a picture on his mobile phone that he took from an airplane over Togwotee Pass of two sections of Shoshone National Forest.

One was brown and deadened, with trees killed by bark beetles and susceptible to wildfire. The adjacent section was verdant, with newer trees that had filled the land. It had previously been clear-cut, Bebout said.

Johnson, of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, disagreed with Bebout’s characterization that the federal government destroyed the timber industry. She said rangers in many national forests in Wyoming cannot find companies to remove trees when they are invited.

“Wyoming’s trees — they don’t have a lot of marketable value in the sense that they’re not these big redwoods or trees in the Pacific Northwest, where you can get multiple planks of wood,” she said. “It’s a very market-driven industry.”

Although the constitutional amendment would prohibit outright sale of the public land, sportsmen worry the state would still resort to land selloffs. They believe Wyoming would be overwhelmed by the regulation and management costs. A sale of land to private companies or people could forever shutter access to the state’s famed landscapes.

Bebout said Wyoming shouldn’t enter a transfer agreement with the federal government unless Congress turns over all mineral rights and promises to pay to fight wildfires, which are a consequence of terrible federal management practices, he said.

But the demand that the federal government must pay to fight wildfires makes no sense, said Stephanie Kessler of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

“Why would the American people pay for the cost of something they’ve given away?” she asked.

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Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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Star-Tribune reporter Laura Hancock covers politics and the Wyoming Legislature.

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