The Marton Ranch and the North Platte River. (BLM)

Federal and county data appear to undercut worries that the federal conservation purchase of the 35,670-acre Marton Ranch near Casper will diminish tax revenue to Wyoming.

Wyoming politicians criticized the recent Marton conservation purchase by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management saying, in part, that the move could harm Wyoming financially. The federal government owns and controls about 44% of Natrona County, mostly through the BLM, but does not pay local and state property tax on its holdings.

The Marton conservation purchase completed last month moved 35,670 acres of private agricultural land off the county tax rolls.

Federally owned lands can “yield costly drawbacks,” Wyoming’s congressional delegation wrote in a June 23 letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Gov. Mark Gordon also questioned “potential impacts” to local and state tax revenues in an appeal notice filed with the Interior Department that challenges the recent $21-million purchase.

But worries about Wyoming losing tax revenue because of federal ownership do not appear to be borne out when examining the “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” program that seeks to offset impacts of non-taxable federal holdings.

PILT payments to Natrona County amounted to $3.95 million in FY 2022, the most of any county in Wyoming, according to federal records. The payments were for 1.48 million federal acres in the 3.4-million-acre county.

PILT generated an average of $2.67 for each federal acre in Natrona County, according to calculations from federal data for FY 2022.

Meantime, state and local property taxes on private Marton Ranch agricultural lands generated substantially less per acre than the PILT program, according to Natrona County assessor’s records. BLM did not purchase the Marton Ranch residential property that makes up the ranch headquarters and which is taxed at higher than agricultural rates.

On 33,324 acres of ranch property classified as agricultural, the county levied approximately $10,300 in 2021 or about 31 cents an acre. Although officials have not estimated what PILT will amount to at Marton Ranch, existing data suggests Wyoming might not lose and might even gain revenue from the BLM purchase.

Comparing the two per-acre revenues — Wyoming ag taxes versus federal PILT — reveals that the federal compensation is about eight-and-a-half times more per acre than those generated by state and local property taxes.

Delegation weighs in

This summer’s conservation acquisition of the Marton Ranch was the largest purchase the BLM has undertaken in Wyoming, the agency said last month. The acquisition will “conserve and expand access to public lands for many generations to come,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement.

That includes access along 8.8 miles of the storied North Platte River. The Conservation Fund was instrumental in the deal, made possible through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund financed by offshore oil and gas revenue.

A real estate listing boasted good fishing on the North Platte River along the Marton Ranch. (Screengrab/Clark & Associates Land Brokers, LLC)

The BLM purchase could increase revenues to the county through PILT, increased sales tax on recreation or other factors, said Dan Schlager, the Wyoming state director of The Conservation Fund that helped assemble the purchase.

PILT helps pay for essential services like search and rescue and law enforcement that counties are responsible for regardless of property ownership. The formula for calculating the payments accounts for population and a variety of other factors.

PILT payments are not guaranteed, however. Congress must approve them each year. The National Association of Counties and other groups say the annual process is detrimental to planning.

In addition to suggesting a potential financial hit to Wyoming, the delegation and governor’s criticism go further. U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney want Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to “neutralize” the purchase by identifying “disposal opportunities” for other federal property in the state.

“[W]e urge you to neutralize BLM’s recent expansion of the federal footprint in Wyoming by identifying equivalent disposal opportunities elsewhere in the State.”

Wyoming delegation to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

In a two-page letter to Haaland dated June 23, the delegation also said the Interior Department should “ensure local and state approval prior to federal land acquisitions” in the future.

The federal government owns and controls “nearly half of Wyoming’s lands,” the letter states, leading the delegation to question the BLM’s need “to purchase and acquire vast amounts of additional lands in our state…”

(The amount of land five federal agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Defense — own in Wyoming diminished by 3.3% in the 30 years between 1990 and 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

The purchase will cost the federal government down the line, the delegation’s letter said, because former Marton taxes “need to be offset by additional federal spending …” Federal land acquisitions also add to a maintenance backlog and diminish agencies’ effectiveness, the letter states.

The governor also raised the tax revenue question in his appeal notice. Gordon filed the notice with the Interior Department on June 16, saying, among other things, that BLM “simply speculated about uncertain future payments in lieu of taxes.”

That speculation assumes Congress will continue to fund the program.

Gordon also criticized a “cavalier disregard for public notice and participation [by the BLM that] violates the spirit if not the letter of the law.” The state has until July 17 to explain its protest in detail and to say what relief, if any, it is seeking.

The notice does not state that Wyoming wants the purchase reversed.

The BLM addressed various aspects of its purchase in a 24-page environmental analysis before finalizing it. The agency said a county tax base “may be affected” but that PILT “should offset any economic issues.”

“Therefore no impacts” to the socio-economic resources, the EA reads.

The Marton Ranch, co-mingled with BLM and state land sections, spans a 118-mile square block in Natrona and Carbon counties. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The document made a similar finding regarding revenue from mineral development and grazing, which Gordon also highlighted as worries. Those uses would continue under BLM ownership, the EA says.

In approving the environmental analysis, the Casper and Rawlins BLM field managers wrote that “no anticipated effects have been identified that are considered ‘highly controversial.’

“The proposed action is consistent with all federal, state, and local laws,” the managers wrote. The purchase “will not result in significant impacts on the human environment,” the two stated.

Governor incensed

Gordon’s notice of appeal called the BLM’s 24-page analysis “cursory” and said it did not consider the potential impacts of federal ownership “in any meaningful way.” The notice reserves a bushel of indignity for the BLM’s outreach and public involvement.

The BLM started the project Feb. 16, according to the agency’s e-planning website. BLM officials approved the purchase May 18 and completed it May 23 when the agency released its decision documents, according to the website. The BLM released the environmental assessment, dated “April 2022,” on June 6.

The environmental analysis contains a very slim Chapter 5 titled “Agencies, individuals, organizations or tribes consulted.” The chapter contains five words: “Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office.”

The federal website lists Natrona County as a cooperating agency. Under the project’s “participation periods,” the BLM website lists “0,” supporting Gordon’s contention that the public was cut out.

“The State of Wyoming enthusiastically supports and often serves as a partner in the Bureau’s efforts to improve access to our public lands,” the Governor’s notice of appeal states, “but there is a right way and a wrong way to make landscape-scale decisions that directly impact the people of Wyoming. Shutting the State of Wyoming and the public out of that process was the wrong way.”

Wyoming law allows secrecy in land sales, even among government bodies, agencies and subdivisions, for reasons that are stated in legislation.

“A governing body of an agency may hold executive sessions not open to the public,” the Wyoming Public Meetings law states, “to consider the selection of a site or the purchase of real estate when the publicity regarding the consideration would cause a likelihood of an increase in price.”

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. A well researched and written article! This land acquisition is a win for the public. Governor Gordon’s posturing should serve as a indication to all who he really serves. Certainly not the majority of his Wyoming constituents.

  2. I smell a rat here. Is some well connected high dollar political donor upset that they lost out on an opportunity to buy the property? All of the concerns raised by the Wyoming delegation could have been answered by 30 minutes of research online. Our elected officials obviously have not done their homework or they would have found out that Federal land ownership is down 3% in the past 30 years as cited in the article. Good job Angus.

    1. Perhaps the real rat is that someone has their eyes on another Federal Parcel that they want the Government to sell to them as part of the proposed disposal opportunities the Wyoming Delegation discusses? What kind of deal are they discussing behind our backs? One thing is for sure. The Wyoming Delegation does not represent the people on this issue.

  3. Loss of tax revenue is a smoke screen for not making available to public. See Randy Newberg web discussion on the property. Make available to public!

  4. Why hunters and sportsmen continue to follow in lockstep with today’s disastrous republicans is beyond me, they spend more time trying to destroy our access and the quality of our public lands on a daily basis than on any good they have done in the last 40 years.

  5. All the public I talk to are very much in favor of this purchase.
    It appears to me in the Governors statement ” identifying equivalent disposal opportunities elsewhere in the State.” , they are not apposed to land purchase , they just don’t want it to be the Mortan ranch , someone wants that property and they don’t want the public access to it.

  6. Way da’ go, Angus. Exactly the kind of fact checking we need when the entire messaging of demagogues (like those too many in our state to name) is that, “They’re coming to get you (the federal government, that is)… not you in the abstract, but you personally… your guns, your children’s minds, your cattle, your rights as a man to bear the children you spawned, your jobs because the feds are opening the floodgates to immigrants, your gender identity. Thanks Mr. Thuermer for standing against this tide.

  7. It is shameful that the governor and the three members of our congressional delegation would oppose this transaction!!!

  8. Another outstanding reporting job by Angus Thuermer!
    Continuing to make a difference with fact-based reporting.

  9. Well all the tax issues are very interesting, but there is a far greater issue in this. What about personal property rights? Doesn’t the owner has the right to sell to the highest bidder? Is our “stop the federal over-reach” delegation now saying that a bureaucrat in Washington should decide who Wyoming ranchers should get to sell their land to? Doesn’t sound like they care much about the rights of the land owner to me.

  10. If you wasn’t convinced before, you should now know that your representatives – federal and state- do not represent you.They don’t want you to have anything, they just want to collect tax money for themselves. We the people shouldn’t give up one inch of federal land to offset this purchase. It wasn’t very long ago that the Gov wanted to purchase a large tract of land for the state. Also, I believe it was back in the late 70’s, the Marton family acquired the land (from the state) to build their ranch house. I don’t remember the state asking permission from the people.

  11. Another great article by Thuermer! Study shows that Fed. reimbursement is 8X the amount lost by not having the land taxed! This study proves that the constant Republican squawks about taxes lost is BS & demonstrates once again that these Western states are in FAR BETTER shape due to existence of the Federally owned parks, reserves etc.–Imagine what these states would be like if these lands were given over to private sector & industry.

  12. United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 17: “. . . to exercise all like authority over all places purchased BY CONSENT OF THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE in which the same shall be . . .” When was our Wyoming legislature asked for its consent to this purchase?

    1. The Federal Government does not need the consent of the state because the land was not owned by the state. BLM purchased the land from private owners. The state has no say in the matter, because the land did not belong to the state.

  13. The Governor was “incensed”…??? After Gordon’s milque-toast response to Covid, it looks as if now he’s trying to bolster some tough guy image. Too late.

  14. If the purchase were for random lands with limited recreational value, perhaps the state would have something to complain about. But when viewed through the lens of dollars, taxes and jobs supplied by some of the best 8 miles of blue ribbon trout water in the nation, popular with anglers, tourists and recreationists, the states argument falls flat. The amount spent by visitors for gas, rooms, meals, guides and equipment for a day of fly fishing is remarkable. When calculated, the jobs, sales and room taxes generated will show this purchase to likely be a huge plus to the economy of Natrona County. I would suggest our elected officials do some simple math before the standard, knee jerk response to a purchase like this one.

  15. What we should be more concerned with is how the Agricultural industry has managed to slither into paying pennies per acre in property taxes on their land in comparison to all other taxpayers. Their property is assessed differently and at a much lower rate than everyone else. The Public doesn’t understand the Wyoming tax system and how much the Agricultural the Ag exemptions and productivity assessment system is cheating Wyoming out of Billions of dollars in potential revenue. One of many favorable tax positions that the Ag people have quietly gained for themselves over the years.

    1. You are so right. The agriculture industry gets far too many state and federal subsidies and tax breaks. The state legislature needs to rectify this.

  16. Wyoming governer is a real piece of work! Money seems to be the only thing concerning those that oppose this purchase. Hello?

  17. If the state wishes to keep these ranches in private ownership perhaps they should create an agency to assist this next generation with purchase opportunities.

  18. If BLM had consulted more fully with the public and State agencies, what possible objections could’ve been raised? The concerns about tax revenue, mining, and grazing were not valid and could be instantly refuted. So what other possible reason could be offered to prevent this acquisition? I look forward to Gordon’s explanation in his follow-up to this appeal.

  19. It is just a Wyoming thing!! Every elected official from Govenor on down and it doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat, you just gotta bash the Feds. It is a profound States Rights thing. The Feds are just wrong because, because, well -the Feds can’t do anything right.

  20. Thank you to the BLM.

    If the state needs more tax revenue, try billionaires in Jackson. More to the point, aren’t Republicans in favor of lowering taxes? Why the outcry over lost tax revenue? The state happily lets billions go untaxed in Wyoming.

    The national parks drive revenue into Wyoming along with most ferderal lands. Isn’t PILT just a half-baked, out-dated idea? PILT isn’t even needed in places like Jackson. The feds pump billions into Teton County. PILT is a money grab.

    If the state wants more revenue and less public land, sell state land in Teton County.

    Again, a big thanks to the BLM land managers who open up more land for public access, for sportsmen, for wildlife, for resource protection and extraction.

    The state limits access to much of its land, and charges fees far in excess of the value to most of the general public. I have never been to any state land which charges money for access but I have been to all of Wyoming’s national forests and national parks.

    Maybe Gordo should do residents a favor and open up more state land and stop bitching about the feds actually opening up more private land to the public.

  21. WHY THE BLM WAS SO INTERESTED: Simple, almost all of the BLM land in Wyoming is “dry” since the homesteaders rapidly filed on any land with water leaving the Federal acreage almost completely dry. Therefore, the BLM has been interested in parcels of land with water and/or access to water. Its the 8.8 miles of river front they were really interested in. That’s the heart of the matter.