Leaders in the Cowboy State appear to be no longer interested in wresting public lands away from the federal government, with the Wyoming Senate president saying he doesn’t anticipate any major legislation aimed at securing state ownership next year.
Furthermore, Wyoming counties are largely not renewing their memberships to a Utah group that was spearheading the transfer movement.
Natrona, Weston, Big Horn and Lincoln counties had previously belonged to the American Lands Council, which has a mission of transferring Western public lands to willing states through legislation or even litigation.
Lincoln County is the only remaining Wyoming member of the organization, according to research by the Western Values Project that the Star-Tribune was able to verify.
Early in the 2017 state legislative session, Senate President Eli Bebout killed a bill that would have begun the process of amending the Wyoming Constitution to allow the state to accept federal lands. Sportsmen had doggedly rallied against the measure.
Bebout on Friday said that the Trump administration gives lawmakers hope that the federal government will manage lands with local interests in mind.
“I don’t think there will be a bill to transfer the lands and get into a lawsuit right now,” he said. “But stay tuned. Things could change.”
Rep. David Miller, a Riverton Republican who is one of the Legislature’s most enthusiastic supporters of land transfer, said he plans to take a different approach.
“I don’t have anything planned myself right now (for legislation), other than trying to educate the public more,” he said. “The whole story got distorted last time.”
Environmental groups exaggerated that the constitutional amendment bill would strip access, Miller said. State ownership of the land would improve access since Washington bureaucrats block access to many areas and roads, he said.
The fight over land control in the West has blown up and also recessed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, the sagebrush rebellion dominated headlines. And more recently, legislators became interested in land transfer in 2013.
Lawmakers begrudged the amount of time it takes to permit oil and gas, timber and other projects. They disagreed with environmental regulations, saying they killed jobs. Activities on public lands generate about $2 billion a year, but the state gets to keep only about half that, with the rest going into the U.S. Treasury.
Wyoming’s current economic woes would be fixed if the state could keep all the revenue, supporters said.
Sportsmen and conservationists, however, argued the state wouldn’t have money to manage an additional 25 million acres of Wyoming on top of the 3.5 million currently under state control. They said a large wildfire could wipe out the state’s budget for managing the land, forcing Wyoming to sell acreage to the wealthy and well-connected.
Then access for ordinary Wyomingites could be forever blocked, they said.
Bebout, a Republican from Riverton, said lawmakers have met several times recently with the state director of the Bureau of Land Management. Lawmakers have explained their concerns to her. He described her as articulate and said she appeared to understand the state’s needs.
“I think where we are is there‘s a lot of optimism because of the new president and his policies,” he said. “And it gets back to management and doing a better job of having true access for multi-use and sustainable yield. The (American) Lands Council was (targeting) this previous administration, where they really, really overreached and tried to shut down Wyoming and other states.”
The Wyoming County Commissioners Association has undertaken an effort with conservation groups to ask the federal government to reclassify some protected areas of public land that they do not believe are serving their purpose.
The trend now is to collaborate with the feds, not fight them, Commission Vice Chairman Forrest Chadwick, who is active in the County Commissioners Association.
“We’ve taken the attitude of, how do we work with the federal government where we have more input on the management of these lands?” he said. “That has been the general tenor of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. Particularly since we have a new administration.”
In Natrona County, commissioners last paid a $1,000 membership to the American Lands Council in 2013, Chadwick said.
Members of the public had pointed questions for commissioners about why county resources were involved in the controversial organization. When the Lands Council asked the county in subsequent years to renew its membership, “we didn’t really ever have a discussion,” he said. “We just kind of let it fade.”
In Lincoln County, land transfer is still salient, Commission Vice Chairman Kent Connelly said.
Seventy-seven percent of the terrain in Lincoln County is federal public land. The county’s schools could use the tax dollars generated from energy and other development. The federal government does send some money to the county to make up for losses in development, but it’s not even half of what the county could generate if there was development, Connelly said.
The county paid $5,000 to the American Lands Council in December.
Lincoln County gets value from its membership, Connelly said. It is kept abreast of how other Western states are proceeding with the fight. Lincoln County shares a border with Idaho and Utah, which has been more aggressive in fighting the feds, including its lawmakers advocating the state sue for the land.
He said the issue is about fairness, as the federal government originally turned over public lands to the eastern U.S. upon statehood. The government never did the same in the West, in part because they obtained statehood later in the 19th century, when Congress started protecting the land.
“This is about how the West is run versus how the East is run,” he said.
But in Big Horn County, the American Lands Council is a distant memory. Commission Chairman Felix Carrizales said he’s been serving for two years and he isn’t entirely familiar with the organization.
“I think, in the past, I’ve received (email,)” he said. “But I’ve never opened it because they tell us we no longer belong to it and I receive so much email.”
Weston County commissioners received an invoice for $1,000 from the American Lands Council to renew its membership. At the commission’s Dec. 12 meeting, they took no action on the matter, according to meeting minutes that the Western Values Project reviewed.
The Star-Tribune called Commissioner Marty Ertman to inquire about why the officials declined to renew. She said she wasn’t sure and referred questions to the Weston County clerk, who was out of town.
The Star-Tribune reviewed commission meeting minutes for five meetings the group had 2017 and could not find any indications the American Lands Council was further discussed.
The Western Values Project is an organization that advocates for balanced approach to public land usage.
Its executive director, Chris Saeger, said it’s good that Wyoming seems to be moving away from land transfer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the land will remain protected and pristine since Congress and Trump have started to repeal Obama-era environmental regulations, he said.
“It looks like all the energy lobbyists are going to write the rules for the next four to eight years,” he said.
And in Wyoming, groups will continue to monitor the Legislature for any sign of lawmakers again pressing for transfer, said Jessi Johnson, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s public lands coordinator.
“This is not the time to think that the war is won,” she said. “This is the time to keep up pressure respectfully and make sure they know this is still an issue.”
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock