Gov. Mark Gordon will challenge the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s recent purchase of the Marton Ranch spanning 35,670 acres in Natrona and Carbon counties, claiming the agency showed a “cavalier disregard” for soliciting input from the state, local governments and the public.
The federal agency also failed to adequately consider potential negative tax revenue ramifications of transferring the private property into federal hands, he said.
“This [appeal] is not about limiting access for sportspeople or challenging the rights of private property owners,” Gordon stated in a press release. “It is about whether the federal government can increase its land holdings without public scrutiny, or should it adhere to the same transparent process that private landowners are subject to if they sought to purchase or exchange federal land.”
At the governor’s direction, Wyoming Deputy Attorney General James Kaste filed a notice of appeal June 16 to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. A Gordon spokesperson told WyoFile he couldn’t answer whether the governor seeks to ultimately block the sale or see it modified based on more local input and economic analysis.
“We will not know for certain the relief we are requesting until the Statement of Reasons is filed,” Gordon’s Communications Director Michael Pearlman said.
The state has 30 days from June 17 to detail its request to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
Some conservation groups have called foul, claiming Gordon’s allegations of inadequate process are in “bad faith.” The governor’s notice to appeal is more in opposition to the federal government increasing its land holdings in Wyoming for fear of prioritizing conservation and public access over other interests, according to the Center for Western Priorities.
“Gov. Gordon should be celebrating a sale that is a win for hunters, anglers, wildlife and the Marton family, not trying to stop it,” CWP Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said in a prepared statement. “Families shouldn’t have to go begging government land boards for permission to protect their land for future generations. But that’s exactly what Gov. Gordon is trying to force here.”
Wyoming BLM Director Andrew Archuleta declined to comment on Gordon’s notice of appeal.
Marton Ranch sale
The BLM’s acquisition of the Marton Ranch followed years of negotiations spearheaded by The Conservation Fund and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, according to the BLM. The Marton family’s voluntary sale — for $21 million paid for by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund — was announced June 2 and touted as a critical gain for land and wildlife conservation and public access for hunting and fishing.
The purchase of 35,670 private acres — the largest federal land acquisition in recent Wyoming history — provides public access to another 40,000 acres of existing public lands previously inaccessible. All told, the complex of the Marton Ranch, other BLM land and Wyoming School Trust property creates a 118-square-mile block of about 75,000 acres that is now open to public access. It includes an 8.8-mile stretch of the North Platte River downstream of Alcova Reservoir considered Blue Ribbon trout fishery.
Elected officials in Wyoming, from its congressional delegation to county commissioners, are wary of the federal government increasing its land holdings in the state — for both its land management policies and tax revenue implications. The federal government owns and manages 48% of the land in Wyoming, including national forests, national parks, BLM lands and underlying minerals.
“The governor is not supportive of the federal government expanding their estate in Wyoming,” Pearlman told WyoFile.
Although there will be a loss of private property taxes, proponents of the Marton Ranch sale claim that payments from the federal “Payment In Lieu of Taxes” program, as well as a boost in revenue from increased recreation and tourism, will make up for and exceed any local tax revenue losses resulting from the sale.
The Natrona County assessor’s records show that 2021 agricultural taxes — excluding residential property — on about 33,324 acres of Marton Ranch property amounted to about $10,300. The federal PILT to Natrona County amounts to more than $3.8 million a year, The Conservation Fund’s Wyoming State Director Dan Schlager said.
“Concern over taxes seems to be overblown at best,” CWP Deputy Director Aaron Weiss told WyoFile. Regarding Gordon’s concerns for a lack of local government and public input on the sale, Weiss said: “It’s not like this was happening in secret.”
The BLM should have solicited comments from the governor’s office, Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and local governments regarding its pending acquisition, according to Gordon.
“None of these entities were notified of the proposed land acquisition until the transfer had occurred,” Pearlman said.