I can think of 50 million reasons why a legislative committee shouldn’t waste the state’s money just to make a political statement. That’s one for every buck the panel wants to spend to sue the feds because it’s furious about a land management plan that hasn’t even been finalized.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s draft resource management plan for 3.6 million acres of surface land managed by its Rock Springs Field Office in southwest Wyoming has become the new punching bag for anti-federal angst.
Gov. Mark Gordon, dozens of legislators, U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyoming) and thousands of residents blasted the BLM’s preferred alternative, which would designate half the land as “areas of critical environmental concern.” The plan, opponents contend, threatens state and local interests and economics, including mining, drilling, grazing and recreation.
Gordon’s office said it’s already exploring a possible suit, but must wait to see if the plan becomes law. The Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee unanimously voted to get started now, proposing to put $50 million into a litigation fund to sue the federal government over national environmental and natural land resource laws.
“This [bill] sends a message that we’re getting locked and loaded to not get pushed around anymore from the big guys back in D.C.,” said Sen. Bob Ide (R-Casper).
How did the committee know that it would take $50 million to become sufficiently locked and loaded? It was easy — Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) simply pulled that amount out of thin air.
“Now that’s a placeholder, but I think it conveys the seriousness of this matter and the seriousness of what this bill is trying to address,” Kolb said.
“We’re risking billions of dollars to the state of Wyoming if we let the Rock Springs RMP and similar RMPs get enacted,” he added. “It’s the future of Wyoming, and the future of my kids and grandkids.”
Kolb added he’s “perfectly willing to put more money toward it [in a legal fund] to fight this battle.” Since it’s not his money, I’ll bet he is.
I have a few concerns.
The BLM has extended the comment period for the plan until Jan. 17 — 60 days past the original deadline. New reactions and data may well lead to changes in the agency’s preferred plan, or scrapping it altogether in the final document in favor of one of the other three alternatives.
While Committee Co-chair Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) says the Legislature should have its own power to sue the feds, it isn’t needed. The only possible reason would be to give lawmakers a chance to score political points with voters heading into the 2024 election.
The executive branch can already do everything this draft bill does, without earmarking an outrageous amount of money for it. Wyoming has the ability, authority and funds to sue the federal government to protect the state’s interests. It’s been involved in 37 natural resource lawsuits in recent years.
In 31 of those suits, Wyoming was on the same side as the feds, fighting environmental and other groups. The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, with a $100 million biennial budget and staff of 228, is well prepared to litigate against the federal government.
The draft bill states that the litigation fund can be used to fight other laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and National Historic Preservation Act. However, the committee is clearly targeting the Rock Springs plan under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
If the Legislature ties up $50 million from the state budget for potential legislation, how many worthy needs will be rejected because Wyoming supposedly can’t afford them?
I can easily imagine some lawmakers trying to cut the $68 million the Joint Appropriations Committee has added to the public school budget through an external cost adjustment. A portion of the funding could become a victim of legislators’ eagerness to make a premature — and perhaps totally unnecessary — political statement against the BLM before a final plan is adopted months after the budget session ends.
The Legislature socked away a record $1.4 billion in savings last year instead of spending it to meet the vital needs of Wyoming residents. Thanks to higher natural gas prices, the state’s economists forecast a $178 million surplus in the General Fund next year, and $870 million through 2026. The Legislature could decide to save all of that new revenue, except for the litigation fund.
Last year lawmakers rejected spending $46 million for a suicide prevention trust fund that would pay for two statewide “988” crisis lines in perpetuity. That’s nearly the amount Kolb said should be devoted to fighting environmental lawsuits. Kolb not only opposed putting any money into the empty 988 trust fund the Legislature ultimately created, but he convinced colleagues to close the suicide prevention account in 2028.
Legislators also turned down Medicaid expansion, missing out on providing health insurance to about 2,000 low-income adults. It would have also saved the state $34 million over a two-year budget cycle.
The Wyoming Department of Health has millions of dollars in funds that will expire when the American Rescue Plan Act goes away. What health programs might wind up being cut if the Legislature earmarks $50 million for lawsuits?
Lawmakers who oppose the BLM’s alternative, which emphasizes conservation over development in line with President Joe Biden’s climate change goals, do not speak for everyone.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council and other conservation groups support the BLM’s proposed plan because it offers strong protection for wildlife, hunting and other forms of recreation in the Red Desert. “There’s a lot to be excited about in the draft RMP,” Alec Underwood, WOC’s program director, said in a statement.
Nearly half of the Rock Springs management area has already been leased for oil and gas. Areas the BLM has proposed to block have low prospects for oil and gas yields, according to Julia Stuble, the Wyoming Wilderness Society’s senior manager.
While none of the lawmakers on the panel thought the proposed high amount for litigation was out of line, much lower lawsuit appropriations to boost the energy industry have failed in recent years.
The Legislature voted in 2019 to give the governor $1.2 million to sue Washington state to force it to allow Wyoming to ship coal to China via a never-completed export terminal. Gordon vetoed the bill because the attorney general was already working on the case. The effort failed when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the suit, so the Legislature’s money would have been wasted.
Lawmakers have made other useless political statements. They appropriated $1 million in 2020 to sue any state that tried to shut down a coal-fired plant. The next year, $1.2 million was allocated to sue any state that wouldn’t buy Wyoming coal. Both efforts to convince others of Wyoming’s inherent right to sell its product were laughable and went nowhere.
There are so many false claims about the Rock Springs RMP that the BLM has gone on the offensive, with officials maintaining the agency isn’t planning to lock out the public.
“The most frustrating thing for all of us is all the misinformation out there,” said Kimberlee Foster, field manager for BLM’s Rock Springs office. “We’re not closing any areas to all hunters, or people walking their dogs, or some of the other nonsense that’s been out there.”
Legislators, including members of the Agriculture Committee, have been spreading this nonsense. It’s time to stop listening to them.