(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.
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