Bill to ban state funds for conservation easements lacks committee support

By Gregory Nickerson
— January 22, 2013

This morning the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee met opposition from his fellow committee members on a bill he introduced.

Rep. Mark Semlek (R-Moorcroft) sponsored House Bill 106, which would ban the use of state funds for purchasing conservation easements from private citizens. Testimony for and against the bill lasted for two hours as 30 audience members filled the committee room, leaving some observers to listen from the hall. At the conclusion of the meeting the committee decided not to vote on the bill and delay further discussion until Thursday morning.

State funding for conservation easements typically comes from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund that the legislature established in 2005. Interest on the permanent trust fund account goes toward conservation projects. According to the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund website, the fund has provided $29.5 million to conservation projects. That money has been matched six to one by outside funding, for a total of more than $150 million.

Chairman Rep. Semlek said he thought state priorities may have changed from the boom times. Back then lawmakers established the fund to balance the effects of widespread energy development. He said amounts like the $7.7 million in state money spent on conservation easements this year could help meet shortfalls like that faced by the Department of Transportation.

In the past the legislature has swept some unspent funds into the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund, while directing other excess money to the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, also known as the “rainy day” account. Presumably some of those excess funds could be used for roads rather than adding to the corpus of the wildlife trust fund.

But the trust fund itself can’t do anything for roads. Projects funded by the Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund include prescribed burns and preservation of habitat and open space through purchase or acquisition of development rights. Money for roads comes from the General Fund, gas taxes, and federal funds.

Chairman Semlek doubted the validity of using easements to prevent sage grouse from being federally listed as a threatened or endangered species. He pointed to a study that suggests an increase in raven populations, rather than habitat fragmentation, have caused declines in sage grouse numbers. A researcher from the University of Utah produced one such study.

Semlek doesn’t see the preservation of family-owned ranches as a worthy reason for state-funded easements. “When it comes to preserving ranches in Wyoming, philosophically my approach is go get another job,” he said.

Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman), who is not a member of the committee but co-sponsored the bill, said that last year 14 out of 17 projects funded by the wildlife trust fund were conservation easements.

Cheyenne resident Harriet Hageman also spoke in favor of the bill, saying that public funds shouldn’t be spent on conservations easements. She said funding easements conflicted with lawmakers’ oath of office.

As an alternative to the outright ban on funding conservation easements, committee member Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) said he might favor a graduated reduction in spending. Committee member Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis) also said he would favor such an approach.

Many of those who testified spoke against the bill.

Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), who is not a member of the committee, spoke against the bill. He said that state money helped purchase a conservation easement on his ranch and provided a stamp of approval that urged private citizens and donors to get behind the effort. Without the easement, Sommers said he might have decided to sell his ranch after his mother’s death.

One of Sommers’ neighbors followed his example and placed her ranch under easement, which removed a combined total of 19,000 acres from development and granted four miles of public fishing access to the Green River. Sommers said the easement protects mule deer and moose habitat. “This is a good way to keep land in family ranches and preserve wildlife,” he said. “It’s a win-win for wildlife and Wyoming.”

Jeremiah Rieman, natural resources policy adviser for Gov. Mead, said the executive branch is opposed to HB 106 because conservation easements help preserve sage grouse habitat. He said if the sage grouse were listed, 81 percent of lands used by oil and gas operators in the state would be subject to federal review to evaluate the impact on sage grouse.

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) asked his fellow lawmakers, “What legacy do you want to leave for the state of Wyoming?” He said trust fund dollars for conservation easements “invest in the future of Wyoming.”

House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) pointed out that the relatively small state investment in easements brings in a larger amount of federal money. He called conservation easements “the one hope we have for preserving habitat on private property.”

Speaking to the general value of conservation, Brown recalled former Gov. Clifford Hansen’s famous opposition to the presidential executive order that created Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943. When Hansen was a Teton County commissioner, he led a protest cattle drive across the national monument with the actor Wallace Beery. But according to Brown, Hansen later reversed his position and said the preservation of Jackson Hole was one of the most important things that happened in his life. (For a photo of Hansen on the cattle drive, click here.)

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), vice-chair of the committee, called a straw poll to gauge committee support for the bill. Chairman Semlek and Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne) voted for the bill, while six others stood opposed.

Rather than call for a committee vote that likely would have killed the bill, Zwonitzer then moved to lay the bill back for further discussion on Thursday. Richard Garrett, a lobbyist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, interpreted the motion as a sign of deference to Chairman Semlek, who introduced the bill.

Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. To read more of his posts visit the Capitol Beat landing page. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

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Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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