A freshman state lawmaker says the federal government must obtain the consent of the Wyoming Legislature to acquire more property — even private property from a willing seller — in the state. Legal experts say the argument smacks of debunked legal posturing in a long-simmering fight against federal land ownership and management in the West.

Sen. Bob Ide (R-Casper) criticized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s 2022 acquisition of the privately held Marton Ranch property in Natrona and Carbon counties, in a May 3 letter to the agency’s Casper Field Office. The U.S. Constitution and federal case law, Ide wrote, gives the state Legislature authority to approve or disapprove of land transfers to the federal government, as well as whether to grant the federal government “exclusive jurisdiction” to dictate management over lands it acquires in the state.

“The role of the Wyoming Legislature in relation to federal land transfers is based upon the fundamental principles of federalism,” Ide wrote. “Unless the federal government can show a constitutional grant of authority that preempts the state’s involvement, the Wyoming Legislature retains the authority to decide whether to authorize land sales and transfers to the federal government.”

Sen. Bob Ide (R-Casper) is pictured during the 2023 legislative session in Cheyenne. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

In the 3-page letter — printed on Wyoming Legislature letterhead and distributed by Ide as a press release — the lawmaker cited the Enclave Clause of the U.S. Constitution and several U.S. Supreme Court opinions to make the case that the BLM’s purchase of the Marton Ranch was flawed and therefore the federal agency’s management of the property is limited.

“It appears as though the BLM will accept public comment and move forward with the land transfer,” Ide concluded in his letter. “Therefore, the federal government should be legally prevented from exercising exclusive jurisdiction over the land once officially acquired, leaving the State of Wyoming to regulate the land as though it were owned by any other ordinary proprietor.”

The sale of the privately held Marton Ranch property was completed and announced by the BLM on June 2, 2022.

The nonpartisan conservation and advocacy group Center for Western Priorities described Ide’s claims as “hogwash.”

“The states cannot tell the federal government what to do with federal land,” Western Priorities Deputy Director Aaron Weiss said. “Nor do states have any standing to tell private landowners who they can or cannot sell their land to.” 

The language, tone and reasoning of Ide’s letter “is reminiscent of the Sagebrush Rebellion,” University of Wyoming College of Law Associate Dean Sam Kalen told WyoFile, referring to the decades-old movement to transfer public lands from the federal government to the states. Case law has affirmed the federal government’s authority to own and manage lands it retains and acquires, Kalen said.

Federal authority, obligations

While states have broad authority to negotiate the sale of state-owned properties to the federal government, there’s little that states can dictate when it comes to a private-to-federal deal, according to Kalen.

Anglers try their luck on the North Platte River June 3, 2023 where it flows next to the Marton Ranch property, which was purchased by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile).

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, or FLPMA, is the overriding law guiding how federal lands are managed. The law also empowers the federal government to acquire, exchange or divest properties. The federal government “can buy or exchange land under FLPMA to get private property,” Kalen said. “And, arguably, the federal government also has eminent domain authority to be able to condemn property.”

A private-to-federal land sale is “not all that complicated,” he added. Whether newly acquired land is private or otherwise, FLPMA and the National Environmental Policy Act require federal agencies like the BLM or National Forest Service to ensure newly acquired property fits the local land use plan for the area before finalizing a deal. It also requires the government to extend “cooperating agency” status to certain entities like state game and fish departments and local counties, as well as solicit public comment.

For example, in analyzing the purchase of the Marton Ranch, the BLM made the case that the property provides an opportunity to further conservation goals set forth in its Casper Resource Management Plan and its Rawlins Resource Management Plan.

“The states cannot tell the federal government what to do with federal land, nor do states have any standing to tell private landowners who they can or cannot sell their land to.”

Aaron Weiss, Center for Western Priorities

“The acquired lands will be managed initially the same as adjoining BLM-managed lands, with existing decisions in place that protect wildlife habitats and other resources while promoting recreation,” the BLM stated in announcing the Marton Ranch deal in 2022. “The BLM will undertake a planning effort to develop management prescriptions specific to the area that take into account the purposes of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the input of Tribes, partner agencies, and the public.”

“A lot of times [a federal land acquisition] clearly does involve the states,” Kalen said. “[States] have the ability to comment on those plans and provide input in the development of those plans, which is what they’re doing now.” 

Marton Ranch deal

The BLM announced the “conservation purchase” of the 35,670-acre Marton Ranch June 2, 2022. It’s the largest land acquisition by the BLM in the state’s history, according to the BLM. The transfer of the private ranch to federal ownership unlocks public access to another 40,000 acres of interspersed BLM and state land sections, as well as 8.8 miles of riverbank along the North Platte River, the BLM stated.

The voluntary sale was years in the making, according to the BLM. The deal was spearheaded by an independent group, The Conservation Fund, with help from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The BLM used $21 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase the property.

This map shows the Marton Ranch. The family did not sell the portion in red. (BLM)

“Through our lasting partnership with The Conservation Fund, we have a unique opportunity to conserve crucial wildlife habitat at a landscape scale and expand access to the river and public land for our local community and visitors,” BLM High Plains District Manager Kevin Christensen said in a prepared statement in June 2022. 

The deal also boosts President Joe Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative, also known as the 30×30 initiative, to conserve 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.

Gov. Mark Gordon objected to the BLM’s handling of the deal, arguing that state and local government agencies — and the public — were not invited to comment before the BLM made its decision to proceed with the purchase. At Gordon’s direction, the state filed a complaint to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. The IBLA agreed, prompting the BLM to revise its socioeconomic and environmental review by issuing a supplemental analysis in April, kicking off a public comment period that ended May 12.

The Wyoming BLM will release public comments, its response to public comments and its final decision on the environmental analysis before the end of June, a BLM official said.

Limiting federal land expansion

Among the state’s concerns regarding the Marton Ranch purchase is whether state and local agencies will incur additional costs related to expanded public access and related impacts of increased public use, according to the complaint to the IBLA. The state also listed concerns about the potential loss of grazing and mineral development.

Beyond such specifics, state and county leaders are wary of the federal government expanding its ownership and management of lands in the West.

A fishing guide poses a rainbow trout caught on the North Platte River June 3, 2023. This portion of the river flowing next to the BLM-owned Marton Ranch is considered a Blue Ribbon trout fishery. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In Wyoming, where the federal government owns and manages 48% of the land, lawmakers and county leaders have pushed for a “no net-loss” of private land. In response to the 35,670-acre Marton Ranch purchase, Gordon called on the BLM to divest an equal amount of existing BLM lands.

Ide supports Gordon’s call for an equal divestment of BLM lands, he said. He also remains convinced that the federal agency hasn’t followed “the rule of law” in the Marton Ranch deal.

“They sort of clandestinely purchased this,” Ide told WyoFile. “They didn’t ask for any public input or input from the state or the counties. We still have authority over that land.”

Ide, an oil and gas landman by trade, said he’s not against increased public access for recreation. His primary concern with the Marton Ranch transfer is the loss of property tax revenue.

As federal property, the Marton Ranch will no longer be subject to state and county property taxes, resulting in a revenue loss of about $10,000 annually ($7,000 to Natrona County and $3,000 to Carbon County), according to BLM estimates. The federal “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” program is intended to make up for such property tax losses due to federal land ownership, but Natrona and Carbon counties both already receive the maximum allowable PILT payments based on population, according to the BLM’s analysis.

Whether a corresponding increase in recreation will make up for taking the Marton Ranch off local property tax rolls is an open question, Ide said. 

“I just want to ​​get the conversation going and see if I can get some answers as to why [the BLM] hasn’t asked for consent from the Legislature,” Ide said. “If they don’t, I believe they are treated as a proprietor just like any other landowner and should have to pay property taxes.”

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Sen Ide is my representative and he made a giant rookie mistake. I hope this isn’t how he continues to represent me in Cheyenne

  2. There are many scenarios like this in this state. Wyoming is the land of the free, you can do whatever you want, as long as whatever you want involves staying in complete lockstep.

  3. What happened to the Wyoming GOP’s advocacy for private property rights? And tax revenue? I though the WYGOP supported reducing taxes. My mistake..

  4. Well, first off, Ide shouldn’t be there (legislature) and to his left is someone who’s also way over his head (Mr. Farm subsidy for himself, nothing for you and I) and shouldn’t be in Cheyenne. My Wyoming GOP has turned into a fascist party that only caters to a select few. I’d like to see Mr. Ide explain to the Marton family on how they don’t have the right to sell their property

  5. Why is even an issue? Wyoming has so many pressing problems that need attention. Skyrocketing property taxes, lack of affordable housing for average workers, crumbling infrastructure, poor access to medical care, poor access to elder care, the list goes on. The “freedom” caucus either doesn’t care, or recognize these issues. Small minded, short sighted, and foolish describe them best. We need to vote these people out and stamp out the stupidity.

    1. The “Freedom” caucus seems hellbent on making sure everyone behaves according to their rules, and they will never see the irony.

  6. Gotta love it when a MAGA supporter calls upon “the rule of law”! Can someone explain to the WY “Freedom” Caucus members that tourism is our 2nd largest industry, and brings in a LOT of bucks and loads of jobs……..

  7. Take a look at what this guy does for a living, and you will understand where he is coming from.

  8. It is obvious that Senator Bob Ide supports wealthy landowners along with the oil and gas industry. Wyoming sportsmen and sportswomen need to vote him out of office and elect a senator that support our values!

  9. I understand the senators concern for the loss of property tax. However, even a cursory look at the revenue anglers bring in to Natrona County would show his argument to be uninformed. Motels, gas stations, fly shops, guide services, repair shops and restaurants are just a few of the businesses that make their living and pay large sums of taxes due to the North Platte fishery. Real estate near the river has greatly increased value because of anglers and access. That increase in value creates a massive windfall increase in property taxes paid to the county. Many times more than the 10,000 dollar pittance he is complaining about. Senator Ide’s knee jerk reaction, without investigating the fiscal realities, is a notable disservice to his voters. Many of whom are anglers and hunters who value public access.

    1. The senator’s position is just one small example of the short-sightedness of his political party and their local, state, and national policies.

    2. agree – the loss of real property loss to Niobrara and Carbon counties will be offset hundreds of times over by recreational economic activity and the jobs created by increased public access – taxes on Wyoming privately owned ranch lands are absolutely minimal and are not based on assessed value – property taxes in adjoining states are almost 10 times higher – so loss of property taxes caused by the Marton Ranch purchase are inconsequential

  10. Is there no end to the things that Republicans feel they have the right to meddle with? The OLD GOP would never interfere with a person’s private property rights but this NEW and IMPROVED GOP seems to think that everyone’s private business is their business too.

    1. Amen! Our entire state is being taken over by these zealots, and not enough voters are paying attention to the agendas of the zealots before they elect them – just as long as they have a big “R” next to their picture, they hit the check mark.

  11. The sale of the Marton ranch is a win for a majority of the public and that same public should dispose of Bob Ide as Senator