Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s bill would direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell almost 700,000 acres in Wyoming. Twenty years ago the BLM listed the property as “suitable for disposal,” but Chaffetz critics say not only is that list outdated, it never made sense as a sale compendium in the first instance. (Flickr Creative Commons/DonLaVagne)

A U.S. congressman from Utah introduced a bill last week that would direct the Secretary of Interior to sell 694,200 acres of public land in Wyoming.

H.R.621 introduced by Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz targets about four percent of the Bureau of Land Management’s 17-million-acre holdings in the Equality State. The bill singles out property identified in a study that’s 20 years old.

“The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities,” Chaffetz said in a statement. The identified acres “have been deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers.”

His website said the bill calls for the “responsible disposal” of 3.3 million acres nationwide. But a summary of the measure at Congress.gov says that it would “direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell…” the property, not necessarily dispose of it responsibly. Although the bill is catalogued as “introduced,” its text wasn’t available on the website by press time. “Delays can occur when there are a large number of bills to prepare or when a very large bill has to be printed,” the website said.

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The 20-year-old report that is the foundation of the bill includes a page each for 22 of the 23 Wyoming counties listing acreages. Teton County is not on the list. The pages list BLM property ranging from 1,000 acres in Laramie County to 122,000 acres in Crook County, according to a copy of the 1997 document posted on Chaffetz’s website.

This list from the 1997 study shows how many acres in Wyoming counties are identified in Chaffetz's bill to sell BLM property.
This list from the 1997 study shows how many acres in Wyoming counties are identified in Chaffetz’s bill to sell BLM property.

The bill attracted immediate criticism from conservation and environmental groups.

“Nobody really knows where these acres really are,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. In the 1997 report, “they didn’t provide a map.”

The Department of the Interior created the 1997 report in response to the 1996 Agriculture Reform Act that sought to identify lands with “potential for disposal or exchange,” as part of restoration of the Everglades in Florida. “…[M]any lands identified appear to have conflicts which may preclude them from being considered,” the 1997 report says. “ Conflicts include high disposal costs, critical natural or cultural resources and habitat, mineral claims and leases and hazardous conditions.”

Realty officer Mel Schlagel prepared the 22 Wyoming pages two decades ago, writing that they could be sold for as little as $30 an acre. That would bring in some $20 million, at least, to the federal government, not accounting for two decades of change in land prices.

In his documents for the Wyoming counties, Schlagel could not say whether the properties had mining claims, endangered species, wetlands/floodplains, historic/cultural resources, contamination or title issues.

“To me it looks like this bill is just a blind effort to divest large tracts of publicly owned lands to the private sector without taking a look at what the environmental consequences and public-access ramifications are,” Molvar said. In the last 20 years, Wyoming residents have resisted the sale or exchange of some public tracts, Molvar said, because of public resources on them like wildlife habitat and cultural sites.

Update— Chaffetz vows to withdraw land-sale bill

The bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources on Jan. 24. There’s no indication the proposed legislation would take into account federal land managers’ assessment of the properties since 1997. Many, if not all, of Wyoming’s nine BLM districts have updated their land and resource management plans since then, possibly changing what in 1997 was deemed suitable for disposal.

This map is an updated inventory of public lands in the Buffalo region that are possibly suitable for disposal — perhaps exchange or sale — according to a recent update of BLM real estate holdings. Critics of Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s widespread sale bill say it is based on a 20-year-old list that didn’t take into account numerous environmental and social factors (BLM)
This map is an updated inventory of public lands in the Buffalo region that are possibly suitable for disposal — perhaps exchange or sale — according to a recent update of BLM real estate holdings. Critics of Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s widespread sale bill say it is based on a 20-year-old list that didn’t take into account numerous environmental and social factors (BLM)

For example, preservation of greater sage grouse habitat by the BLM weighed heavily in the 2015 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep that bird off the list of endangered and threatened species.

Chaffetz has introduced the bill in previous congressional sessions, without success. With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, its fate today could be different.

“In previous years there have been some checks and balances,” Molvar said. “While President Trump has made some statements that he’s not in favor of the private and local land seizure, there’s a lot of uncertainty what he would do.”

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Don LaVagne

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Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Public land is just that public. No one should have the right to sell it. Why must people be so greedy and destroy natural beauty for a buck. Not only that you take land away from our animals. I say enough is enough.

  2. Check out what happened to our northern neighbors. Texans and their money bought up some of the birthing grounds of the Snowy Mt elk herd. Private money has put up fencing and now patrols that herd with armed guards.
    Once opened for the citizens it is no longer BLM land but was traded and snagged and brokered behind the scenes all excluding the individual citizenry. Big money machines, if allowed will buy up and squeeze out all ‘free access’ .

    1. Jason Chaffetz came out publicly against President Elect Trump for the Billy Bush Gropper buss incident and it didn’t work out so well for him. I believe he will do anything to get in good graces with President Trump. I believe if this administration wants him to get things in motion to sell BLM land, he will do so. I do not have much respect for this man. Must be oil in them hills, and the politicians want it for a cheap price. The government should hang on to it, they may need it for debt payment if the I owe U’s, are called in.

  3. A cabbie that once took my son & me from a wedding to the port in Boston said “Wyoming, huh; I understand I have some land out there–you all still taking care of it for me?”

    We need to make sure that when his great-grandchild asks the same question, our great-grandchildren can still answer “We sure are! Come out & walk around it sometime!”

  4. Why don’t we get some current research and make it open to the public so we know what, where, and why. 20 years is more than enough time for things to change. I doubt they know the current per person usage of many of these areas.

  5. It is interesting that the majority of the acreages in that report are in the counties of eastern Wyoming where access to public land is becoming increasingly difficult and landowners are charging exorbitant trespass fees. A couple years ago I saw seven unfortunate Minnesota antelope hunters posted up inside of a single flat section of BLM land near Kaycee with the hope of bagging a pronghorn.

  6. Without public land access there are precious few reasons to stay in Wyoming. It tears me up to see what I have taken for granted taken away. I have done all of the things a good citizen should do–write letters, call my representatives, support protests, donate to organizations that advocate for public land access. I just am having trouble believing that any of this can ever make a difference. Big money and outside partisan politics will always win. The damage done to our few remaining wild places will be irreversible.

  7. To Rep. Jason Chaffetz:
    Please confine your legislative monkey business to your home state of Utah and leave Wyoming alone. You have introduced your flawed legislation multiple times resulting in continual rejection by sane and responsible people. I suggest you take a hint from your ongoing failures.

    Or trying reading Wyoming newspapers/reports on the overwhelming resistance of Wyoming citizens to the public lands grab envisioned by Senators Hicks and Bebout and Rep. Stubson.

    I can’t imagine that Senator Enzi, Senator Barrasso and Rep Cheney would be willing to experience a similar public drubbing by voting in favor of your ill-timed and unwanted scheme.

  8. Don’t listen to Utah representatives that have been planing for years to make money for themselves and just a few others. Let the public like it said PUBLIC LAND we all should have a say HAVE A VOTE. When they do it there way there will be no PUBLIC LAND just NO TRESPASSING. ALSO THEY NEED TO LEAVE TREATY LAND OUT OF ALL THERE DICISIONS

  9. pure and simple – public lands need to stay in public hands- if you hunt , fish or recreate in general in the wild outdoors- get involved in this

    1. I agree, Jay. Public lands should not be put up for sale to private parties – ever. People you need to wake up. Now!

  10. The BLM and the State of Wyoming already have a not-so-good reputation … in particular, with regard to the wild horses and to the ‘Checkerboard’ episode. Isn’t THIS still involved in litigation? Why is a senator from Utah further stirring the pot? There is actual ‘good’ work going on in other BLM areas, re: co-habitation of both sage grouse, wild horses, and other wild species. To sell off so much PUBLIC land in Wyoming could endanger many wild species, to say nothing of the geography. The urge for some to add cattle and sheep, or to start digging, mining, or fracking would be the death knell for all. Check out the BOSH Project, BruneauOwyheeSageGrouse, BLM.