Close Connections

The Sand Creek Ranch controversy includes many examples of the closely connected, overly familiar nature of Wyoming politics.  Not only did the governor take a personal interest in Sand Creek because he has known John Jenkins “forever,” but his wife Nancy, a partner in the Sheridan-based firm of Davis and Cannon, is Jenkins’ attorney.
Nancy Freudenthal was Gov. Ed Herschler’s attorney for intergovernmental affairs for eight years; John Jenkins worked on Herschler’s political campaign. John Jenkins brought a case before the Board of Equalization, Ms. Freudenthal represented him; Ms. Freudenthal had been chairman of the Board of Equalization from 1989 to 1995.
In July 2009, Gov. Dave Freudenthal appointed to the State Board of Equalization Debra Nagel Smith, the former Albany County assessor who testified last year for Jenkins at the local tax board hearing. She has recused herself from matters concerning Sand Creek Ranch.

Elsom is unhappy about Ms. Freudenthal’s role in the whole case.

“I can’t tell you how wrong I think this is,” Elsom said to WyoFile. “The governor’s wife taking a case against the county.”

The case reveals the push-pull Wyoming has with open space. No one interviewed for this article had a bad word to sat about the concept of the Sand Creek Ranch.  Even Elsom says she appreciates what Jenkins is trying to do.

“I’ve got nothing against this type of development,” she said.

Yet there is little agreement about who should pay for open space. The public–not without dissent–supports the ranching business with federally subsidized grazing, soil conservation, and irrigation programs. The state also offers ranching economic help, and the counties, too, give ag a break.

But preserving open space is not exactly supporting a business, it’s more like sponsoring an aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic with a good payoff, as tourism is big business in Wyoming and most tourists do not to come here to work cattle. There seems to be a growing, if uneasy, acceptance of federal income tax-subsidized conservation easements, at least for “big” ranches. With his longstanding political connections, Jenkins got his $2 million tax deduction, but it’s unclear if another hybrid development could similarly succeed.

There seems to be some reluctance here to pay to preserve what conservationists call “view sheds,” those undeveloped areas near our towns. Wide-open spaces, the very definition of Wyoming, used to just come with the territory; they were free. Who wants to pay for the long sightlines that have always been a given?

The county’s tax 2008 assessment will not make or break Sand Creek, but the revenue involved matters to Johnson County. The county seems reluctant to take a revenue hit for the sake of open space on John Jenkins’s land. Most county officials are well aware that, as University of Wyoming studies have shown, rural residences cost Wyoming counties more money than they bring in new revenue.

Many people interviewed for this article did not like the idea that Jenkins or any of the residents of Sand Creek could be getting any special treatment, tax wise.

Take the opinion, for example, of planning and zoning committeeman Wayne Graves.

An unapologetic agrarian, he represents a sector convinced of the virtues, both economic and philosophical, of agriculture.  A conservative Republican, Graves has learned that there are many sides to the zoning debate.

Still, county finances matter to Graves. The 99 eventual homeowners at Sand Creek, he says, will put more pressure on county services than would a single rancher. Thus, Graves is convinced that Elsom is doing the right thing.

“I buy into the whole Sand Creek concept,” he said. “But it has to be taxed as rural residential. I can’t see a bunch of self-centered elites in a subdivision being taxed as agriculture.”


Samuel Western

Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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