(Column) — A majority of Wyoming residents believe federal lands in the state belong to all Americans, and only about one-third support the state government taking over management or ownership federal public lands.

Why do Republicans throughout the West keep pressing the proposal when they know it’s so unpopular? Being tied to a losing issue doesn’t seem to make much political sense. Oh, but it does. Let’s look at why the GOP is so excited about breathing new life into the failed “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the Reagan era, and why they think it now stands a chance.

  • The issue isn’t going to a vote of the public, so polls don’t really matter. At the state level the Legislature and governor will make the decision to seek the property, not the people.
  • Over the years Wyoming GOP officials have done such a great job blaming the federal government for most of the state’s ills, it’s accepted as almost a universal truth. Here’s their mantra on public lands: “When you need help would you rather go to some bureaucrat in Washington or talk to someone in your own town?”
  • Republicans are counting on people to ignore this issue so they can finally get their hands on federal land and sell our resources without taking much heat for selling out the public.
  • A consultant will report back to a legislative committee how the state’s takeover of managing a portion of federal land would impact Wyoming. The $75,000 study is due Nov. 30, 2016, and it will likely be so mind-numbingly complicated and dry, it won’t be very difficult for GOP officials to spin it their way.

It’s this last point I’m going to address first. Utah, which passed a ridiculously worthless bill demanding the feds “give back” the state’s public lands, has already conducted its own massive study. It generally seems to rubber stamp the idea that transferring the title of federal land to the state is not only economically feasible, it could be Utah’s ticket to easy street.

With those claims spread far and wide, it will be difficult for opponents of Utah’s blatant land grab to show that the study includes so many caveats, the plan’s revenues and expenditures could only line up so favorably if state government immediately starts selling off its new resources so it can pay to manage the land.

And that, folks, is precisely why the overwhelming majority of residents are against the Wyoming proposal. They fear the energy industry will drill and mine the living hell out of the public lands switched to state control, creating a potential environmental nightmare. Residents worry they will lose access to their favorite recreational places in the state, and endangered species won’t be protected.

Private interests would make fortunes in exchange for state government getting richer, too, all at the expense of the best of what Wyoming has to offer.

If you think it couldn’t happen, just look at Utah’s study. It says the state would spend about $280 million a year to own and manage the federal land it would take over. Consultants from three Utah universities said the figure is doable, but they also speculated the state wouldn’t be able to pay for it during the first few years.

No, it would require selling off many of its newly acquired assets to energy and land developers to get the necessary funds to make state management possible.

In Wyoming, what do you think would happen whenever the economy goes south again and legislators must look for ways to balance the budget? Will they tap the rainy day account that most Republicans view as off limits, or will they simply sell off some more of our finite mineral resources to the highest bidder?

The Utah study noted the feds generated about $332 million on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service in Utah in 2013. Mineral lease revenue accounted for 93 percent of the total, or $308 million.

With those numbers, it’s easy to see why officials in Utah, Wyoming and other Western states are salivating at the thought of how much could be raised if drilling and mining is rapidly accelerated. If a Republican administration is elected in 2016, the GOP is counting on a no-holds barred, “drill, baby drill” policy to be quickly enacted.

I certainly hate to interrupt our lawmakers calculating how rich the state (and some of their friends) will get, but let’s consider just one huge expense that is being overlooked: fighting wildfires.

Conservatively, the feds spent $55 million fighting fires on public lands in Wyoming in fiscal year 2012. In peak fire years, those costs could easily triple — and if this land grab is approved, it will be the state and not the federal government stuck with the tab.

States won’t have the equipment the federal government now has to fight fires and provide for wildfire preparedness and hazardous fuels reduction, nor will they have the trained personnel to do the work.

In The Wildfire Burden, a study by the Center for Western Priorities (CWP), the group noted, “Land seizure proponents across the West are conveniently silent on how they intend to fund wildfire protection and suppression without the federal government, without selling off lands, without raising taxes, and without raiding important parts of a state’s budget, such as K-12 education.

“Until this critical question is answered, land seizure proposals shouldn’t be considered by any serious politician,” the CWP added.

I know the work has barely started, but I don’t think the “independent” study and recommendations the Wyoming Legislature is paying for should be taken very seriously. Nevada completed a study very similar to Utah’s, and the overall results were basically the same. The Wyoming report, too, is destined to show what the GOP legislative leadership wants it to, which is that the state could pay for the added management duties it would assume for federal lands.

There will probably be some suggestions by the Wyoming study’s authors that selling off land should be a process that is taken slowly and carefully, but the reality is that action will more likely be fast and furious as the state realizes the only limit to this jackpot is the amount of oil, gas and coal Wyoming has left in its reserves — and we all know the state has a lot. Once the floodgates open, they will be nearly impossible to close.

That’s why opponents of the GOP’s plan need to be loud and clear in letting the entire state know what’s at stake here: the health of our environment, our wildlife, and our way of life. This idea needs to be shot down now, because the danger is that next year voters who hate it will still check the box beside every name on the ballot with an “R” behind it, because that’s what they always do.

Be smart. Don’t be complacent and allow conservative Republicans to achieve their disastrous goals. Let your representatives and senators at both the state and federal levels know any support for this unwanted (and unconstitutional) land grab is totally unacceptable, and you will be paying close attention to their decisions.

At least close enough so voters can actually have an impact at next year’s election, and work to see that officials who don’t respect the will of the people won’t return to their seats.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. State take over of federal lands would be a disaster for recreationists. Shame on the Republican party for promoting this! I am a Republican, and I am not happy with their position on this!!!

    Earl DeGroot

  2. I would add to the discussion that we need only look at the past and present management of STATE lands by state government to see what the outcome might be, It is not pretty , nor profitable , nor efficient. The business case for state management of all public lands withing the state could probably be extrapolated to “massive potential for financial failure; management dysfunctionality ; endemic corruption resulting from state managers being beholden to special interests from Stockgrower to skyscraper” . I do not say that lightly , or even rhetorically. Just gauge the way Wyoming has previously managed its own forests, grazing, mineral development , energy development, all manner of water management , even wildlife and hunting. The Wyoming state Constitution requires the state to manage state trust lands ( also called school trust lands) for maximum return and benefits reaped. How has THAT worked out in the past 125 years ? In a word, abysmally. We can’t effectively manage the 3.5 million acres of state lands we have now, so what would expanding that to 20 milli9on acres become ?

    Scrutinizing the xisting management of state lands by state government yields all I need to know about scaling that up to add control of BLM and Forest Service lands. it would be FUBAR , and probably bankrupt the state in alarmingly short order. To believe otherwise is delusional, given the history and the lay of the land.


    Dewey Vanderhoff

  3. Mr. Wharf:

    First, can you provide some evidence to back up this claim: “most of the failed management practices that have resulted in such catastrophic forest fires have been perpetuated or foisted upon Wyoming by raving extreme environmentalists that only seek to maintain their strangle hold over western states.” What specific practices and who foisted them?

    Most people think any forest fire is catastrophic, but in reality, most forest fires are parrt of the natural order and actually good for many wildlife species, especially the beloved elk and mule deer – you know, the ones with big antlers.. A century of fire suppression has allowed conifers, in many areas, to choke out shrubs and aspen which are generally more important for wildlife. Take the Uinta’s as an example – a near monoculture of lodgepole pine that supports a lot of squirrels and not much else. A burn in the Uintas could be large and to some “catastrophic,” but I’ll bet your members would be filling a lot more tags in the years afterward.

    nathan maxon

  4. “When you need help would you rather go to some bureaucrat in Washington or talk to someone in your own town?” Washington or Cheyenne, I would rather talk to someone in my own town, like the local USFS and BLM employees. Currently It’s pretty hard to find someone in my home town to address State owned land issues.

    Most importantly, if western states take over management of Federal lands, wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities are going to play second (or 5th or 6th) fiddle to Corporate America and a myriad of quick money making schemes. It will make no difference if the land is leased or sold outright.

    Wildlife may have a chance if it can generate enough revenue. Like perhaps a stipulation that anyone hunting on the land must use an outfitter who has exclusive use through lease of such land. It has happened in many places in the west, including public land that is landlocked by private land. Of course this means hunting only for the rich, but what the hell, someone is making money.

    Speaking of money, $75,000 for this study is a joke.

    Mike Hunzie

  5. The broad expanses of land and great natural resources that belong to the American public — not the corporations, not the states, not the churches, not the clubs — makes the West different from the rest of the country and, indeed, most of the world.

    As Americans, we all determine how these lands are used. With federal ownership, I get to comment on management plans for lands in Idaho, state of my birth, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Montana and other Western states.

    I don’t want to give that up.

    Dan Neal

  6. Drake, you are wrong on this topic. In your article you claim that the Wyoming will sell the land. You fail to mention to the public, the fact that 95% of the money obtained in a sale would be given to the federal government and 5% would be retained by the State; furthermore, that 5% is required to go towards education. So, please explain how Wyoming stands to benefit from the selling off of their public lands?
    Both state owned and federal lands are currently leased to allow for energy development. Leasing the land does NOT require it to be sold in order for energy development to occur. What happens now is that the federal government claims 52% of Wyoming’s mineral wealth. This doesn’t happen in other states where the federal government allowed those states to own the lands within their respective borders.
    It is interesting that you bring up the cost to fight forest fires; yet, you fail to mention the mismanagement of the forest which have led to the large fires we are now forced into fighting and the destruction caused by their refusal to manage forest for sustainable use. It has never been the purpose of the US Forest Service to protect the forest; yet, that is what has happened. They have loved it to death.
    How can anyone believe that we have equality in the Union when so many states don’t have to contend with all of the bureaucratic red tape that western states now contend with today? I also find it interesting that you want to vilify the Republicans or the GOP for fighting to see that Wyoming is placed on an equal footing with eastern states.
    The truth is, we do have a lot of work to do before the state assumes control of Wyoming’s public lands. First off, we need to restore access and use to state lands. Secondly, we need to see what the proposed study says. Lastly, we need to ask what is in the best interest of Wyoming?
    I do agree that it is far easier to meet face to face with our state elected officials than trying to convince some bureaucrat living in Washington D.C that Wyoming’s lifestyle and heritage is important to us, more so than to them. Furthermore, the people outside our state already act as though they should have more say in what happens in our state. When was the last time anyone in Wyoming thought enough to tell an eastern state how they should manage their state, develop their energy or manage their wildlife resources?
    It is no wonder that you would belittle Republicans and fail to recognize that most of the failed management practices that have resulted in such catastrophic forest fires have been perpetuated or foisted upon Wyoming by raving extreme environmentalists that only seek to maintain their strangle hold over western states. It is no surprise that you would try yo make this into a debate between Republican and Democrat views; however, this issue and debate is really about whether or not Wyoming (and other western states) should be in control of its own destiny, just as the other eastern states are or if we will continue to be treated as though we are not quite equal to other eastern states?

    Bob Wharff

  7. Responsibility in this case — and in all good government cases — rests with an informed and thoughtful electorate. Can we count on Wyoming citizens to vote on their own best interests and the interests of future generations, for a change? They will have to critically examine the “spin” Kerry predicts.
    We hear a lot about our Western heritage — horses and clear skies and agriculture and access to public lands for hunting, hiking and other multiple uses. What happens to that? Wyoming will look very different under a scenario of private ownership.

    Marguerite Herman

  8. I hope al Wyoming people will read and listen to these wise words! This is such an important issue. I hope Wyoming citizens will start their own Sagebrush Rebellion and just quit voting for names will an “R” after it.