A Jeep driver explores the top of Aspen Mountain in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, where commissioners wrote a letter to lawmakers opposing transfer of federal lands to the state. Counties are lining up on both sides of the issue, which is spearheaded by the Utah-based American Lands Council nonprofit. (Flickr Creative Commons/Carfull)

While Wyoming lawmakers study transferring the management of public lands from the federal government to the state, local governments are lining up on opposing sides of the issue.

Last year, four Wyoming counties used taxpayer money to buy memberships in the American Lands Council, a group that advocates for transferring federal lands to states. Lincoln and Big Horn counties each gave $5,000, while Weston and Natrona counties each gave $1,000.

The Wyoming Republican Central Committee adopted a resolution in favor of federal lands transfer, as did the town of Star Valley Ranch.

Meanwhile, other local governments in Wyoming are declaring their opposition to transferring federal lands to states. The town of Jackson, along with Teton, Albany, and Sweetwater counties have passed resolutions stating their opposition.

In Wyoming, the federal government owns 48 percent of the land, with the acreage split between the Bureau of Land Management, National Forest  and National Parks. Frustration over federal management decisions runs high across the state, particularly where drilling and grazing interests find themselves at odds with management for conservation.

For some county leaders, that’s enough to write off the system of federal management entirely.

“More and more BLM lands in Natrona County are being managed by Washington D.C., not by the BLM offices here in Wyoming,” Natrona County Commissioner Rob Hendry said. “Washington tells them to do things instead of listening to their own people on the ground.”

Hendry said he believes land use would be simpler if ownership were in state hands.

“The access would be the same as it is now, in my opinion, but the companies that are using Wyoming would have faster answers, quicker permitting times, and less regulation.”

Leaders in other Wyoming counties aren’t convinced that the state would be more accommodating than the feds, particularly when it comes to public access. In February Sweetwater County commissioners signed a letter to legislators opposing transfer of federal lands.

“I am a proponent of multiple use, and the issue that I have with the state on multiple use is they are more restrictive than the federal government is,” said Sweetwater County Commissioner John Kolb. “We can’t even camp on state land.”

Reid West, also a commissioner in Sweetwater County, said he wonders if the state could generate enough revenue to properly manage federal lands. “It is unrealistic to expect the state would be able to afford the management of those federal lands,” he said. “I just don’t buy it.”

West says he understands frustrations about long permitting times for mineral development on federal lands, yet he doubts that transfer is the right solution. “I think we are better served to try to resolve those delays in permitting by other means,” he said.

Kolb differs from his fellow Sweetwater County commissioner West in that he individually supports the concept of federal lands transfer, but he remains cautious as to what the state might do. “It has too many unknowns right now,” he said. “Are they going to end up being worse than the federal government to us?”

In Natrona County, Hendry’s general impression is that the majority of counties support transferring federal lands, though he said there has been no formal vote to gauge that.

Republican Central Committee favors lands transfer

In February 2014 the Central Committee of the Wyoming GOP passed a resolution in favor of transferring federal lands to the state.

Charles Curley, a member of the committee, has since worked with the American Lands Council to hire a part-time lobbyist in the Wyoming Capitol. Bob Wharff, Wyoming lobbyist for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, registered in 2014 as lobbyist for the Wyoming Lands Council, an affiliate of the American Lands Council.

Wharff took the job after an ALC meeting in Utah attended by Curley and Reps. David Miller (R-Lander), Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment), and Marti Halverson (R-Etna), along with Sens. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), and Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower).

Several Wyoming lawmakers at the meeting donated funds to launch the Wyoming Lands Council lobbying effort, according to a Republic Free Choice article written by Curley.

In addition to writing for his position on the GOP Central Committee, Curley writes for Republic Free Choice and serves as a board member of the Wyoming Liberty Group, both nonprofits founded and funded by Susan Gore.

Opponents to studying federal lands transfer

In the 2015 Legislature, Wyoming lawmakers passed Senate File 56 to pay a consultant $75,000 to study the fiscal implications of state management of federal lands.

During the session the Sweetwater County Commission signed a letter opposing the bill, as reported by the Casper Star-Tribune. “We felt like it was a waste of money to even fund the study as to whether it is feasible or not,” Sweetwater Commissioner West told WyoFile.

The Office of State Lands and Investments, which will administer the study, has received one bid so far, and will make a decision on whether to hire the consultant in the coming weeks.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) is skeptical of the study.

“For [$75,000], I hope to see something new,” Rothfuss said. Similar studies done in other states did little more than take data from one state and apply it to the next, he said. “I assume there is already a study available, and I hope we don’t pay too much for it.”

Could Wyoming win federal lands in a lawsuit?

Critics of federal lands transfer think it misleading to speak of “giving federal lands back to the state,” because Wyoming never had title to federal lands.

“I think that those federal lands for the most part never were Wyoming lands, and a lot of that land was land that nobody wanted to begin with,” said Keith Goodenough, a former Democrat state senator from Natrona County.

All state and private land within Wyoming was originally held by native tribes, foreign nations like Spain, France, and Mexico; and eventually by the United States, through treaty and military action. Congress created Wyoming Territory to better administer the development of the Union Pacific railroad, granting huge amounts of land to the railroad and individual homesteaders as incentives to develop the arid, high-elevation landscape. Unclaimed lands, along with national forests and parks, stayed in federal ownership.

When Wyoming became a state, lawmakers ratified Article 21 Section 26 of the State Constitution to: “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof… and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States … .”

Because of that language, Sweetwater County Commissioner West doubts a lawsuit would work. “I think it is a legal battle that the state will end up losing,” he said. “I think it is common sense and that the feds giving back those lands will never happen, and it is an effort in futility. Other commissions [that] feel the way we do, they should speak up and say so.”

In 2013, the Wyoming Attorney General drafted a brief arguing that Utah’s state law calling for transferring public lands relied on “a repeatedly rejected reading of the United States Constitution and a strained interpretation of Utah’s statehood act.”

The brief concluded that a Wyoming law demanding Congress release federal lands to states would be unsuccessful.

“We are hoping [the Attorney General doesn’t have the last word on it],” Hendry said, noting that attorneys general in other states believe there are valid legal arguments for transferring federal lands to states.

Wyoming’s Legislative Service Office has also drafted a memo pointing out areas in which a transfer of federal lands law could face legal challenges, without taking a position for or against such a transfer.

Even if transfer of federal lands never becomes a reality, Hendry said he believes it could lead to more state involvement in management decisions in Wyoming.

“We could, by asking these questions, let the state have more of a say in managing these lands along with the federal government,” he said.

Fore more on this issue, read these WyoFile articles:

Vilsack: U.S. will keep federal lands, June 11, 2015
Senate stalls fed land transfer bill for ‘management’ study, February 17, 2015
Rep. David Miller offers bill to study transfer of federal lands to Wyoming, February 13, 2013
Utah lawmaker: Wyoming in good position to take ownership of federal lands, October 16, 2012

Related documents:

Lincoln County resolution in favor of lands transfer, December 9, 2013
Republican Central Committee resolution in favor of lands transfer, February 8, 2014
Town of Star Valley Ranch resolution in favor of lands transfer, January 8, 2014

Albany County resolution opposing lands transfer, June 2, 2015
Town of Jackson resolution opposing lands transfer, June 1, 2015

LSO Memo on Transfer of Lands

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Carfull.

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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