Wyoming lawmakers are coming closer to finding a way to expedite public land transfers between public and private landowners, a key step in increasing public access to thousands of acres of landlocked state land.
However, the Joint Committee on Agriculture finds itself still wrestling with one key argument: whether the state’s focus should be on increasing public access — which the public wants — or in raising as much money for the state as possible, which the constitution requires them to do.
Thursday in Laramie, state lawmakers met with leaders of the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners to discuss easing the process of exchanging private and state lands. While already defined in state statutes, the process has proven frustrating for landowners who find either that it’s too cumbersome or that it offers too little room to challenge appraisals.
This week’s discussions are part of a larger effort to increase access to the state’s landlocked public lands, a longstanding issue for many states in the West. According to a study by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership last summer, Wyoming currently has more than 1.1 million acres of landlocked land, much of which is under state management, prompting groups like the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance to undertake lobbying efforts to compel state-level action.
While the problem is clear, however, the solution is not. The state wants to increase access by consolidating its land holdings through the purchase or transfer of private lands to the state. But private landowners have often raised complaints about the bureaucracy involved in the process, particularly in how the land is appraised by the state and the length of time it currently takes.
But there’s a reason for all the red tape, said Jason Crowder, assistant director for the Wyoming Office of State Lands. While some can be frustrated with the bureaucracy involved, expediting the process for some land exchange deals might not be the best idea, he told the Star-Tribune in an interview.
“There is some frustration about the length of time it takes, but I think our process is appropriate, knowing who we answer to for proper land management,” Crowder said. “We want to make sure our beneficiaries understand that the transaction we’re entering into is a prudent one and in their best interest, so we want to make sure they obviously have all the information possible. And that takes time to compile.”
While Crowder suggested some changes to the existing process could be made — like potentially reducing the public comment period involved in state-private land swaps if county commissioners feel it’s unnecessary — proponents for public lands are cautious of what could be lost in efforts to increase efficiency.
“The expedited process bill has a potential to increase access, however it looks like an uphill battle,” Darek Farmer, director of the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance, wrote in an email. “We need to know what ‘expedited’ means and what the public process looks like. It will be nice to hear what (the Office of State Lands and Investments) comes up with.”
Any proposal, he added, would ideally include ample opportunity for public comment.
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“(Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance) wants to ensure a public process for all sales, acquisitions and transfers of publicly owned lands,” he added. “This current proposal doesn’t put up any red flags but there are potential areas of concern as this bill moves forward.”
Finding fair value for land
Over the past several months, state lawmakers have been considering a mediation process to address landowner grievances during negotiations with the state. However, a simple solution has been elusive. Though the state already has a process for land transfers, appraisals are oftentimes very subjective, based on factors such as whether the property contains live water or if it’s a natural habitat for volatile or sensitive wildlife populations.
Then there’s the cost imperative for the state: While private landowners can often be frustrated by how land is valued, managing land for maximum profit — whether to help pay for the state’s education system or raise other revenue — is a constitutional mandate, meaning state land deals can often be more expensive than the cost of private sector deals.
In testimony to the committee, Wyoming Stock Growers Association Director Jim Magagna urged lawmakers not to move forward with any changes to statute, saying that while the group was supportive of their efforts to expedite the exchange process, they would not want to see the non-revenue uses for state lands, like recreation, given a higher profile.
Others, like the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation’s Brett Moline, argued that each land exchange is so unique and has so many variables, anything the committee passed could be difficult to define in statute and may ultimately be a piece of legislation they don’t really need.
However, better outlining a process for resolving those disagreements could help optimize the state’s efforts to raise money and improve public access, said committee co-chair Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas.
If there’s a way to do both — and reduce frustration with the process at the same time — then why not pursue it?
“There’s been this realization that if there are no drawbacks — either in the fiduciary responsibility of the state to raise money for our schools or for the adjacent landowner — that we should have an expedited process if it works for everybody,” he said. “So looking for a cooperative way to expedite that process is low-lying fruit, and certainly acknowledges that there is increased interest in public access.”