U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visits a trail crew working on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in the summer of 2015. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.WyoFile)

CHEYENNE – On the final Friday of the 2021 Legislative Session, members of the Joint Agriculture Committee met to map out goals for the coming months. 

There was talk of state forest health, concerns about trespass law and worries about the thousands of wild horses inhabiting the western reaches of the state. 

But lawmakers also raised the possibility of starting another conversation before the next session, one that has been churning in the minds of many western lawmakers for a half-century: the feasibility of Wyoming taking over a large share of the more than 30 million acres of federal lands within its borders.

That proposal, which was brought to the committee by Rep. Robert Wharff (R-Evanston), would be accomplished through a process similar to one outlined in a bill he co-sponsored with the committee’s co-chair, Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne). House Bill 141 – Transfer of federal lands called on the federal government to transfer all federal lands (minus national parks or certain historic sites) to Wyoming’s control for profit and preservation. It never received a hearing. 

Wharff, a longtime advocate for state primacy in wildlife management decisions as former director of the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, told lawmakers Friday that Wyoming is being “hammered” by the Biden administration, and needed to forge its own destiny. 

“This is the second time in my brief history in this state where I’ve seen a presidential administration basically attacking what I believe is the backbone and heartbeat of our country and state, and that is our economic driver, the oil and gas and the coal industry,” Wharff said. “And I do think it begs the question: if they’re going to continue to attack our economy, we need to figure out a way to fund our state and local governments. And that’s always been done by having the ability to develop our own resources.”

Rep. Robert Wharff (R-Evanston) listens to a colleague during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature Monday, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

Several members of the committee – including Eklund – appeared to express an interest in the topic and, if approved by Management Council, could explore the feasibility of Wharff’s proposal ahead of the 2022 legislative session. 

The topic, however, is not a new one to Wyoming — lawmakers have brought it before the Legislature in several different iterations — and it faces what appear to be steep challenges. Experts have said the state cannot compel such a transfer without a Congressional act or successful lawsuit, and studies have concluded that the management would be too onerous on the state.

Roots of the movement

Pushes to take over federally owned lands in western states began roughly a half-century ago as a response to the passage of federal laws like the Wilderness Act of 1964 and The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, in 1976. Where federally owned lands were once managed for profit, FLPMA altered the traditional functions of agencies like the Bureau of Land Management to consider the intangible benefits of public land ownership as well as their potential for uses like mining, drilling and grazing.

The backlash to that grew into a movement often called the Sagebrush Rebellion. Conservative activists sought more control over federal land in their states. It has since morphed into an effort to control the management of endangered species and make other land-use decisions.  

For decades, Wyoming’s leaders in Cheyenne and Washington have fought the federal government for control of wolf and grizzly populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and for a greater say on federal property in Wyoming. Roughly half of all the land in the state is federal, belonging to all Americans.

The momentum behind the takeover in the West has persisted in recent decades, with states like Utah and Nevada weighing legislation to sue the feds for control of those lands. 

“There is a lawsuit ready to go,” Marti Halverson, a conservative activist and a former state legislator, told lawmakers in testimony on the proposal Friday. “It is fully funded by one of the western states. And I think if they saw Wyoming taking on this subject over the interim, they would be encouraged to bring this lawsuit forward.”

Limited success

Though the debate over public lands in Wyoming is long-standing, the most serious efforts by the Legislature to gain control over those lands have primarily unfolded in the past decade, with limited success.

After a government shutdown closed numerous national parks to the public in 2019, Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) brought legislation proposing that state government could temporarily operate federal facilities during government shutdowns. That bill passed the Senate before being defeated in a House committee.

Before that, Wyoming lawmakers introduced a number of bills looking at the topic with varying success, including House Bill 228 in 2013, House Bill 35 and Senate File 41 in 2014, House Bill 209 and Senate File 56 in 2015, and House Bills 126 and 134 in 2016. The most contentious effort may have been the 2017’s Senate Joint Resolution 3 – Public lands-constitutional amendment, which some feared would lead to the eventual privatization of public lands in the West.

Then-Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) later killed the bill — which called for a statewide vote to change the Wyoming Constitution — under immense public pressure.

Experts working at the behest of the Legislature have studied the concept of Wyoming taking over federal property within its borders before, with the consensus being that Wyoming simply can’t afford the immense obligations of managing the land. While proponents have argued the freedom to develop the land would allow the state to generate revenues necessary to cover the cost of managing it, a government-sponsored study several years ago concluded that Wyoming did not have the infrastructure or ability to sufficiently manage the entirety of those lands on its own.

“Management of federal public lands is an incredibly complex puzzle of interwoven and sometimes conflicting pieces,” the report read. “We believe the resources of the state would best be utilized if directed at tackling smaller pieces of this puzzle.”

Encompassing over 100,000 acres, the Killpecker Sand Dunes on BLM land in the Red Desert is one of the largest sand dune areas in the world. Boar’s Tusk, the remains of a volcano, can be seen in the distance. (Bob Wick, BLM/FlickrCC)

Past critics of the land transfer have also pointed out that Wyoming cannot simply compel the federal government to hand over federal land through legislation. Others have said such handover would require either Congressional action or a successful lawsuit. A study conducted on behalf of attorneys general across the west in 2016 cast doubt on their legal standing in such a case.

A persistent idea

Polls have shown a majority of Wyomingites – 53% — to be opposed to the transfer of federal lands to the state.

“It’s just hugely unpopular with the Wyoming public to pursue transfer of federal lands,” Stephanie Kessler, a senior conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said. “And that’s been demonstrated, year after year after year.”

But advocates of the idea, like Wharff, believe that a balance can be struck between conservation and development.

“We are a remote state,” he said Friday. “But I think our state could have a lot more growth if we had the ability to develop more of our lands. Believe me, I am a sportsman’s advocate. I love hunting more than just about anything. But I think we can do both.”

The makeup of states and the federal government agencies in regards to public land can create a divide, said Jess Johnson, the government affairs director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

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“There is always going to be a disconnect,” she said. “We’re asking one seat of government to make laws and rules for a very culturally diverse country. And those laws and rules have to be broad. They have to let every voice in. Sometimes I think that feels incredibly unfair for the folks who are living in a place where whatever decisions are being made affects their backyard.”

The idea is that everybody has access, Johnson said, becomes a sort of great equalizer. “But I think what we fail to realize is that when we look at things like the multiple use mandate, that means that your voice is equal to other voices. Not more important. Not ‘more special than.’ Equal to. And so sometimes when the other voices have more needs — maybe that’s an endangered species or others — your voice comes second.”

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  1. Thanks to all of the Wyomingites who sent in comments to legislative leadership. The topic was taken off the list of topics to review during committee meetings over the summer/fall last Friday. Legislators agreed that transfer of federal lands should not be studied again. Enjoy our public lands, Wyoming!

  2. Wildlife and open space are Wyoming most important assets,grazing,hunting and recreating should be King!,

  3. The people of the state of Wyoming represent .2% of the population. Shouldn’t the 99.8% of those outside the state who also own our federal lands have a seat at the table in this discussion?

  4. I agree with Laney – leave agriculture alone and stop bashing ag. Grazing of public lands does the least amount of damage to the land as opposed to mineral development, solar, wind and worst of all subdivisions, The BLM does an excellent job of managing the grazing on public lands and monitors over grazing and reductions in AUMs during drought conditions. Cooperating agency status gives state and local governmental agencies a seat at the table today – this wasn’t always true in the past; however, today the joint decision making is based on cooperative participation to an extent not seen in the past.We don’t need control over the public lands in Wyoming when cooperative management gives us an avenue to participate in the decision making process, My life experiences have found ranching to be the best stewards of the land. I am a degreed mining engineer and have witnessed the impact of mineral extraction for many years. Instead of bashing ag, maybe we should be talking about how to reclaim thousands of abandoned CBM wells in the Powder River Basin.

    1. Grazing does the least amount of visible yearly damage, but grazing has had significant long term impacts on our landscape and vegetation health.

      The BLM does not regulate subdivisions, those are on private land.

      The BLM actually does not have much authority to reduce grazing during droughts.

      The ranching community basically wrote the regulations that govern them, and get a massive amount of sway for an entity that totally relies on the federal government to keep their industry viable.

  5. Instead of talking about taking over Federal lands WY should be planning King Coal’s funeral..

  6. Have advocates of this proposal come forward with examples of where other transfers like this have occurred or been successful? As a dry run let’s see a bill from the Wyoming legislature on how they propose to manage the wild horse issue.

  7. Mr. Wharff, go back to Utah where you belong. I smell a rat here. Anyone that wants to steal public lands and, at the same time, claim to be an advocate for wildlife, is, well, not being truthful. Anyone else feel like you’re tired of the carpet baggers?

  8. I am so sick of the bashing of agriculture in Wyoming. The real greed and profit grabbing is the minerals industry. Leave agriculture alone.

    1. Well then, you Wyoming ag folks should be working on your image, and accepting the fact that ag production here is minuscule in term of the national food supply rather than lording over the rest of us as if we would starve without you. You get subsidies WE pay for, from low-cost grazing privileges on public lands (which, in fact DOES destroy wildlife habitat) to property tax breaks to predator control from the despicable Wildlife Services, and those subsidies include water diversions and impoundments like Boysen Reservoir, projects paid for by federal taxpayers that benefit YOU primarily. YOU should be thanking US that you’re still in business.

      You produce maybe a percent or two of the national beef supply, and about 1.5 percent of the national sugar supply, which is about 40-60 percent cane-beet sugar, with the state producing maybe 2.5 percent of the sugar of beet origin. I am sick and tired of being on public lands and having some uppity cow farmer tell me I am on HIS, or HER land because he, or she has a grazing privilege. And, please, save the “western heritage” hokum. It’s boring, not to mention dreamed-up.

      We don’t mind you making a living–as long as you aren’t destroying habitat and the landscape with your activities, but stop swaggering around like we’re dependent on you for our food. Your day came and went long ago. And, that day wasn’t as grand as you make it up to be.

      1. I agree with you mostly being a commissioner on a federal reclamation project you need to know that the construction cost were applied to the land that it would benefit in a repayment contract with the fed government the fisheries gained are controlled by the state hydroelectric power was the trade off to the public for the interest free money used to build the dams municipal water source gained for the public and flood control. The world shouldn’t revolve around farmers they just don’t realize that they are dependent upon a tremendous amount of people to make their lives work.and far as grazing 62% of leases are controlled by 2% of the ones using it and theyhave an oil company behind them it’s all bullshit

  9. To bad we can’t ask our Great, Great, Great Grandchildren what they think about this idea. Wyoming’s future lays in its beauty. State control is the same as extractive industry control.

  10. Giving the cattle barons and high altitude haymakers the authority over public lands would be regressive. It is no longer the 19th century . They are the very LAST stakeholders you want in charge of our landscape. Has two hundred years of western colonization and misguided Manifest Destiny taught us nothing ?

  11. While mineral extraction is most definitely the economic driver of this State, second up is tourism and recreation (hunting, fishing, hiking, etc). The discussions about the transfer of Federal lands are always putting the cart before the horse. First, Legislature needs to revise the way State lands are managed. Then we can talk about a transfer.

    If a transfer were to take place without an overhaul of State land management, the second largest industry (and the one with the largest upside) in this State would essentially be killed in order to try and enhance the main industry. Not a very good trade, IMHO.

  12. Yet another “magical thinking” proposal by the Wyoming Legislature regarding stealing America’s Public lands. But I do see the legislature did pass one highly important bill. Effective in July it will be legal to take roadkill and eat it! This is a great progressive State or what!

  13. Ahh Marti and the seizure advocate Sen. Scott….good times…. I sat next to Sen. Scott during that house committee meeting and I sometimes think he brought the legislation as a joke, as calling out the Guard to take over Federal property had a real Fort Sumter feel to it. However, the big players see there is money in parks and in removing those pesky BLM and USFS regulations that are impeding profits by pillaging public places.

    I have never understood the desire to destroy our lands and wildlife for profits? One of the reasons we have public lands is because the King and His Retinue were the only ones allowed to hunt or benefit from the land. I guess the Wyoming legislature thinks they are the Retinue and only they and their cronies should profit or take from our public lands?

    I believe we can extract resources responsibly, but I also believe these resources should benefit Americans and not be sold on the open market to be shipped over seas. I have the same feeling about cows grazing on our lands at a losing price, only to make money for those 5th generation ranchers?

    Now Marti is supposedly a devout christian, but she seems to miss the part in the Bible where the lord god says that man has Dominion BUT implies that man manage the earth so all species can be “fruitful and multiply”, not just man (Gen 1). God also showed favor to managing the Earth as a Pastoral Garden and not rending it up to grow what one wanted, we he showed favor to Abel’s gift and not Cains’ (Gen 4). She really needs to brush up on the Biblical teachings and the Constitution before advocating for robbing the American public of our birthright. as well as God’s intent for this world.

    1. It is all about the old favorites, greed and profit. Not what can I do for you, but what can you do for me!
      Politician’s are always espousing a narrative concerning how they and only they can fix a problem, but once elected that goes out the window with baby bath water.
      Wyoming can not afford to manage 30 million acres of land if it were thrust upon us. We are broke so where will the funds and the personnel come from to manage the acreage? These same people in our legislature are the same backward thoughtless fools who keep doing the same dumb things year over year. ( spending money to sue everyone and anyone to ensure our neighbors and friends keep using coal.)
      I am afraid the ranchers would wind up with control over said properties thus locking out none ranchers from use of these lands unless we pay for access like they charge to hunt land locked federal and state properties amongst their property. Ranchers already believe they own Wyoming state lands trying their hardest to keep people off of said lands.
      These wonderful 5th generation Wyomingites, as they like to tell everyone who will listen, are the only ones to be entrusted to do the right thing with all this land.
      Not so.
      They can put that 5 th generation crap in a pipe and smoke it. I for one if anyone wants to technical, am a 16 th generation AMERICAN. I am proud of it also as I did not just fall of a turnip truck yesterday going down the county road.