Gov. Matt Mead said the transfer of federal public land to the state is legally and financially impractical, as lawmakers continue to eye amending the Wyoming Constitution to accommodate receiving more terrain.
Mead said in an interview Wednesday with the Star-Tribune that two state attorneys general have advised him that Wyoming is not legally structured, through an enabling act that began the process of statehood in the late 1800s, to obtain federal land. States such as Utah have enabling acts that provide a stronger case for transfer, but even they are battling to obtain the land, he said.
“Then you get into the policy,” the Republican said. “And I reflect back to 2012. We spent as a state $45 million fighting fires… If the federal lands that had fires on them would have been state lands, we would have spent another $45 million – in one summer. That’s a significant amount.”
On one side of the fight to control national public lands are conservation and sportsmen groups, which oppose state control because they believe it will result in decreased access and a potential selloff if a wildfire or other catastrophe becomes too expensive for the state. A majority of Wyomingites oppose giving state governments control of the land, according to a Colorado College poll released in January.
On the other side of the debate are a number of Wyoming lawmakers. They argue that the federal government is too slow in permitting mineral development, suppressing revenue that would go to the state, and blocks access to roads. They say they have plenty of supporters of land transfer, although thus far supporters have been largely silent.
But Sen. Eli Bebout, a Riverton Republican who has worked on the constitutional amendment, said people will voice their support at an upcoming meeting.
That meeting, scheduled for Wednesday in Cheyenne, will also have opponents present, sportsmen groups say.
A trio of lawmakers will work with the public on the amendment. In its current form, it says that if the state obtains public land, the acreage may be exchanged but there can’t be a net loss in its size or value. It also says the land must be managed for multiple use, meaning outdoors activities can occur alongside grazing, mining, and oil and gas development.
“We wanted to have some public input, rather than everybody saying what a bad idea it is,” Bebout said.
However, conservation groups continue to oppose the constitutional amendment. They are not interested in negotiating, because if a constitutional amendment emerges from Wyoming, Congress will get the wrong idea, said Chris Merrill of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
Merrill said Outdoor Council leaders plan to pack the meeting with employees and members of the public who oppose transfer.
“It gives the false impression to members in Congress that there’s support for the state takeover of public lands,” he said. “That’s why we are fighting against this so adamantly. That’s why we’re bringing our members. And that’s why citizens are coming to these meetings. We don’t want anybody to get the impression that this is some sort of populist movement in Wyoming. It’s not. It’s a small number of legislatures that are pushing a very specific agenda.”
Merrill said that there will always be pressure on Wyoming’s decision-makers to sell the lands, even if there was a constitutional amendment prohibiting it. The sale of lands could forever close off Wyoming’s scenery, he said.
Tasha Sorensen of Trout Unlimited is also encouraging people to attend the meeting to shut down the bill before it appears before the 2017 Legislature, which convenes Jan. 10.
Her organization supports a public lands initiative between conservation groups and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association that addresses Wilderness Study Areas. The areas have been in a holding pattern for decades because Congress won’t either designate them as official wilderness areas or release them as regular public lands.
She’s trying to educate the public that the initiative could be good for Wyoming. But the constitutional amendment is unacceptable because the threat of privatization of the lands, which belong to all Americans.
“When we think the federal agencies are doing a poor job managing the federal public lands, it’s disheartening that they don’t have the budgets to manage public lands,” she said. “And that’s where the solution is.”
President-elect Donald Trump is expected to nominate Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington as Interior secretary, which would put her over 500 million acres in public lands. Five years ago, she co-sponsored a bill that would have required the Interior secretary to sell more than 3 million acres of public land.
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock