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Wyoming wants other states to join fight for federal land

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GILLETTE — Wyoming lawmakers on a task force studying the possible transfer of federal lands to state ownership want other Western states to join the fight.

On Wednesday, the Task Force on Transfer of Public Lands decided to request permission from organizers of the Council of State Governments West for two task force members — Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, and Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton — to address one of the organization’s committee meetings in August. The council is a platform for elected officials to discuss ideas affecting the region.

Hicks and Miller will gauge whether other Western states want to take up the fight. Task force member Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said states may be more successful if they approach the federal government as a group.

“In my gut, it’s going to have to be two parallel tracks: one political and one litigation,” said task force member Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, of the fight to get federal lands. “They probably need to run together because I think each one adds some impetus to the other.”

The Wyoming Legislature ordered the land transfer study. The task force will meet twice more and then present a report to the Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee by November. The interim committee will decide whether to sponsor a land transfer bill for the 2014 Legislature session.

The issue of federal land ownership has become important in recent years in part because states are financially crunched, said Ken Ivory, a Republican Utah state lawmaker and president of the American Lands Council, an organization that has been pushing for Western states to fight the feds for land.

State legislatures think that if states could control the lands, they could turn the lands into a source of revenue by either selling them and collecting yearly property taxes from the new landowners or by keeping them but allowing minerals extraction at a faster rate than the federal government, Ivory said.

Wyoming is one of five states where state legislatures have passed bills ordering similar studies. The other states are Nevada, Utah, Montana and Idaho, Ivory said.

Land ownership in the Midwest and East is mostly private. Only 4.2 percent of North Dakota is federally owned, 5.7 percent of South Dakota and 1.4 percent of Nebraska, said Jerimiah Rieman, a policy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

But in Wyoming, the federal government owns 48 percent of the 97,000 square miles within the state’s borders. Below the surface, the federal government owns two-thirds of the mineral rights in the state, Rieman said.

That’s because Wyoming and other Western states were admitted to the United States as land policy was changing, he said.

“You have to look at the times when we were admitted and conservation laws,” Rieman said. “We were moving out of that homestead phase to the phase of conservation.”

But Ivory believes that the states deserve the land.

When most states were admitted, the federal government owned large swaths of land but promised it to the states. For instance, in Illinois and Missouri, the federal government owned 90 percent of the states’ land for decades after they were admitted, he said. The states fought to wrest the land away from Washington.

Wyoming has an advantage that other Western states do not have, Ivory said. The United States obtained most of what is present-day Wyoming in the Louisiana Purchase. Other states from the Louisiana Purchase are in the Midwest, where the federal government owns little land. Wyoming politicians could argue that the federal government is treating them unfairly, Ivory said.

In some cases, the best Wyomingites can hope for is that the feds would still own the land but the state would control how it is managed, Bebout said.

“All of that is on the table,” he said.

Reach state reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at laura.hancock@trib.com.

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