The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will take a second look at its conservation purchase of the 35,670-acre Marton Ranch on the North Platte River south of Casper, agreeing with Wyoming that it should solicit public and local-government comments.
The federal appeals board on Oct. 21 ordered the BLM to “set aside” its May 2022 decision to buy the property and better address Wyoming’s complaints. Wyoming argued in a 42-page statement that the BLM violated the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The BLM didn’t consider indirect impacts to the North Platte fishery and was arbitrary in assessing cumulative impacts, Wyoming’s statement of reasons said. Finally, the federal agency didn’t involve state and local governments in its decision and didn’t seek public comment.
Gov. Mark Gordon hailed a settlement with the BLM that led to the order, calling it “very gratifying.
“My concern has always been that the process was not followed,” Gordon said in a statement.
What they said
“I am pleased they have agreed to complete a public comment period, [to] do further environmental analysis and consult with state agencies,” Gordon’s statement reads. “This also offers an opportunity for additional discussions about the process, should the BLM pursue other acquisitions.”
Gordon has said that the federal government should divest itself of other holdings in Wyoming to compensate for its purchase. The land acquired by the BLM, a conservation purchase designed to preserve open space, agricultural grazing and wildlife, bucked Wyoming’s resistance to more federal ownership in a state where the American public owns some 48% of the property through federal agencies like the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.
The BLM filed a motion with the Interior Board of Land Appeals asking the panel to set aside its prior decision and return the issue to the federal agency for public comment. With that, the BLM can “supplement its environmental analysis to better address issues raised by [Wyoming] in the Statement of Reasons,” the BLM motion stated.
Why it matters
Although critics of the purchase initially feared Wyoming might lose tax revenues, worries shifted to other issues, including trout fisheries on the blue-ribbon reach of the North Platte, aquatic invasive species and government transparency.
In its appeal, Wyoming stopped short of asking that the BLM surrender its new property. But the secretive nature of the purchase stung Gordon’s sensibilities.
“The [land-buy] Decision does not explain why [the BLM] did not provide an opportunity for public comment,” the appeal states. “Instead, the Bureau conducted an ‘internal’ scoping process and simply created a webpage for the project that did not adequately describe the proposed acquisition or invite public participation.”
The BLM completed the willing-buyer-willing-seller purchase in June in a partnership with The Conservation Fund, an independent nonprofit. The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, financed by offshore oil and gas revenue, was the key revenue source.
All told, the $21-million purchase will preserve 8.8 miles of shoreline along the North Platte, preventing subdivisions and other development. But new public access could bring other problems and impacts to the land and river that Wyoming would have to address, Gordon has said.
In addition to Gordon, Wyoming’s federal delegation objected to the purchase in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Conservationists, however, lauded the federal move and criticized calls for state approval of such actions as roadblocks to landowners exercising private property rights to sell their property without interference.
The ranch had been on the market for some time before the BLM acquired it. Neither Gordon nor the BLM appear to have announced how or when public comment or other developments will proceed.