This summer I hired a cowboy and his two pack animals to carry our rock climbing gear and food into the alpine country of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. His two pack animals were named Pence and The Donald. When I assumed these monikers meant he must be conservative, he said with a grin, “well, guess it depends on what you think the intelligence of a pack horse really is.” In further conversations, it was clear that he treasured our public lands in Wyoming and knew their economic value to his outfitting operation.
Several years earlier, I’d hired another cowboy and his beasts, again to get deep into the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area to ascend an unclimbed 1500-foot granite face. This outfitter made most of his living taking non-resident hunters on elk hunting trips on forest service land. He grumped incessantly about how the “feds were stealing our land” and that the “feds should sell the forest service, sell the national parks, sell it all to the highest bidder.” When I suggested that if this happened, his livelihood as an outfitter would end instantly, he couldn’t seem the grasp the implications of what he himself espoused. Exasperated, I said, “so you’d rather have a Saudi or Chinese billionaire buy the land, fence it, and put up No Trespassing signs!?” We didn’t talk much after that.
Now it’s November, the heart of the hunting season. Like many Wyomingites, I grew up hunting and fishing on public lands, both state and federal. Over 48 percent of Wyoming lands are held in the public trust by the federal government, guaranteeing that access is equal and often free to all. In Wyoming, the BLM administers 27,860 square miles — almost 18 million acres; the U.S. Forest Service runs 14,460 square miles — over 9 million acres. Another 5.6 percent of Wyoming lands are managed by the state government. As an American, this land is your land. Indeed, this land is literally your own backyard.
Compare this to another blazing red state, Texas, where 95 percent of the land is held privately. You want to hunt in Texas, you often must pay the landowner to access their land, and sometimes even hire an outfitter. Is this what Wyoming hunters want?
When you hear we should “take back federal land,” remember that 100 percent of Wyoming was tribal land before whites arrived. Furthermore, notwithstanding the dishonorable series of broken treaties with Native Americans, the real legacy of genocide and land acquisition, Wyoming, like other Western territories as they became states, ceded control over unappropriated land. It’s in our state constitution, Article 1, Section 26: “the people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands.” You can’t take back what was not yours in the first place.
Even if you could amend the Wyoming constitution, as some have suggested, the U.S. constitution is also quite clear: “Congress shall have power to dispose and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States …” (Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2). Furthermore, the Supreme Court, in an early ruling that has been upheld numerous times since, said that Congress has the “absolute right” to manage federal lands. As far back as 1922 the Supreme Court “firmly settled that Congress may prescribe rules respecting the use of public lands.”
Even if in some fantasy world where you could change both the state and U.S. Constitutions allowing the state to control federal lands, Wyoming, a state facing a 1$ billion deficit, would not have funds to administer these lands. And, if they were so bold as to sell large tracts of federal land, you can guarantee the local rancher on his 4-wheeler wouldn’t have the money to buy it. Wyoming would become the exclusive, private playground of the obscenely wealthy.
If you hunt, fish, climb, hike, ride, bird watch or bike — some of the best reasons to live in this state, you should be in favor of preserving the status of public land in perpetuity.
Mark Jenkins is the Resident Scholar for Wyoming Humanities
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