On Nov. 9, the Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee will meet in Riverton to consider a public lands amendment to the Wyoming Constitution. Among other things, the proposed amendment would supposedly prohibit the sale of federal lands if they were transferred to the state.
The proposed amendment appears to be an attempt to quiet those of us who fear that transferred lands would be sold and recreational access would be lost. If adopted the amendment would carry little legal weight, but transfer proponents no doubt plan to send a political statement to Congress hoping Congress would be responsive. That would be a long shot, because Congress likely wouldn’t be sympathetic. The futility of the effort not withstanding, here are several reasons why a constitutional amendment is a bad idea:
First: Article 21, Section 26 of the Wyoming Constitution says: “The people of this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof…” It would seem that any attempt to amend the constitution to pave the way for transfer of federal lands to the state is contrary to the spirit and intent of the original wording.
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Second: A constitutional amendment prohibiting transferred land from being sold would be bad fiscal policy. The cost of managing transferred land could vary dramatically from year to year depending on wildfires, unanticipated ligation, etc. If in any given year (or every year) management costs were to exceed revenue from those lands, management would need to be subsidized by other funds. Where would those funds come from if none of the land could be sold? Would health and social service programs need to be cut? Would education need to be cut? Perhaps highway construction and maintenance would suffer. It is clear the proposed constitutional amendment could saddle the state with a long-term drain on an already strained state budget.
Third: Transferring federal land to the state would disenfranchise millions of Americans from other states. At the current time, public land management policies are set by Congress. Theoretically, those policies balance the wishes of 330 million Americans. The result is a “policy soup” that may be distasteful to some, but it attempts to achieve a balance between a wide variety of interests and users. If federal lands were to be transferred to the state, 330 million Americans would lose input into the management of what had been previously their public land. Instead, less than 600,000 Wyoming residents would be setting public land policy. In truth it would be a lot less than 600,000, because some elected officials and local decision-makers are well known to dominate decision-making. Do we really want public land policy set by a handful of domineering politicians rather than for the common good of the American people? While decision-making by a relatively small group of local officials has the potential to be more responsive to recreational interests, it also has great potential to be heavily influenced by profiteers.
Fourth: A constitutional amendment is contrary to the recommendations of the recently released federal lands transfer study. The study recommends that, due to the cost and complexity of management, the state should develop better ways to influence the existing federal land management process rather than attempt to transfer management to the state. The Wyoming Legislature funded this study over strong objections from the outdoors community. Now it would appear that some members of the Legislature are ignoring the recommendations they paid for.
Fifth: Public opinion is solidly against transfer. A statewide opinion survey has shown, and most outdoor organizations have stated, strong opposition to transfer. Numerous local political entities have passed resolutions against transfer. The Casper Star-Tribune published an editorial against transfer. Grassroots opposition is further evidenced by objections from such groups as the Wyoming Association of Churches. Yet, some members of the Legislature continue to pursue this very unpopular idea. It is time for all elected officials to accept that the majority of Wyomingites deeply value our federal lands. It is not just a liberal fringe group that opposes transfer. On the other hand, those promoting transfer appear to be an out-of-touch small group of extremists with a nearly uncontrollable hate for the federal government. If they are successful, there is a good chance they will destroy the lifestyle that many of us hold dear. Please express your concern to the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee prior to Nov. 9.
Earl DeGroot is a retired management consultant. He is a Republican with a master’s degree in natural resource management and a master’s degree in public administration.