Middle Piney Lake on United States Forest Service land in the Wyoming Range. House Bill 228 would study transferring federal lands to the state of Wyoming. (USFS Photo)
Middle Piney Lake on United States Forest Service land in the Wyoming Range. House Bill 228 would study transferring federal lands to the state of Wyoming. (USFS Photo)
By Gregory Nickerson
— February 13, 2013

Last fall state lands hawk and Utah state representative Ken Ivory appeared before a Wyoming legislative committee  calling for the transfer of federally owned lands to Western states.

Now it seems Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton) has taken up Ivory’s cause in Wyoming with House Bill 228 —Transfer of federal lands-study.

You might remember Miller for his 2012 “doomsday” bill, which inspired a tongue-in-cheek amendment proposing Wyoming acquire an aircraft carrier.

Miller is an economic geologist from Riverton and CEO of the uranium company Strathmore Minerals Corp. He told WyoFile he disagrees with federal policies that impede development of the mineral economy in Wyoming. As an example he cited the Wyoming Range Legacy Act that withdrew National Forest land from oil and gas drilling.

Miller said he heard Ivory give a presentation about transferring public lands at an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference in Salt Lake City last summer. He liked the idea, and asked Wyoming’s Legislative Service Office to draft a bill on the issue.

Previously, the Wyoming Attorney General’s office wrote an opinion stating that Utah’s federal land transfer laws relied on “a repeatedly rejected reading of the United States Constitution and a strained interpretation of Utah’s statehood act.”

The Attorney General concluded that Wyoming would be unsuccessful with a bill patterned after Utah’s laws. In response to that opinion Miller’s bill stopped short of demanding transfer of federal lands, and simply asked for a study.

House Bill 228 tasks the Attorney General with finding alternative legal recourse to, “compel the federal government to transfer ownership and control of federally owned and managed lands to the state of Wyoming or to private individuals.”

The bill also creates a task force to look at the economic costs of federal management. In particular they would look at the impact of federal permitting delays, the inability to tax federal lands, and management under the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The task force, under Miller’s proposal, would consist of nine people with members representing oil and gas, mining, agriculture, travel, and counties, plus four legislators. The group would get $30,000 to conduct the study with assistance from the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming. They must file a report to the Joint Agriculture committee by November 1, 2013.

House Bill 228 passed through the House Agriculture Committee with a 7 to 2 vote at the end of January, and then got 6 to 1 approval from the House Appropriations Committee for the $30,000 fiscal note.

The bill passed the House with a vote of 44 to 13 after several back and forth amendments between Miller and other legislators. Last night the bill passed the Senate Agriculture Committee 4 to 1. It now goes to the Senate for three rounds of debate.

Miller says bills and resolutions on this issue are under consideration in Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Nevada, and Arkansas.

In Miller’s testimony to the Senate committee, he spoke to the history of federal land policy, saying Congress had discussed disposing of unclaimed federal lands in the early 1930s just before the 1934 passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which regulated usage of public grazing lands.

Homesteaders east of the Rockies claimed much of the land, and the remaining federal lands got transferred to the states, particularly in the 19th century and early 20th century. As homesteading died out, the federal government didn’t take action to dispose unreserved federal lands in Wyoming and other sparsely settled western states.

Miller said the policy of disposition formally reversed with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which directed the government to hold on to federal lands. House Bill 228 attempts to take a step back to the previous policy of relinquishing federal lands.

“I got quite concerned reading this (bill),” said Paul Wood, a citizen who spoke against the bill before the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I am a public land user and when I read this ‘compel the federal government to relinquish ownership’ I thought that’s what a robber does when he wants something that he doesn’t own.”

Wood emphasized that it’s incorrect to speak of “taking back” lands from the federal government, because federal lands never belonged to the Wyoming in the first place.

Wood also had concerns that transferring federal lands would ultimately put those lands in private hands, ending public access. Rep. Miller responded by saying any future disposal of lands to the state or private citizens could include provisions to maintain public access in perpetuity.

Dan Neal of the Equality State Policy Center said he believes the federal government is unlikely to give away any lands given the current fiscal picture. “I think we would have a big fight from Congress to relinquish half of the mineral royalties coming off these lands,” he said.

Miller noted that the time required for processing a permit to drill on federal lands has increased from 154 days in 2005 to 307 days in 2013. Meanwhile, the state of North Dakota can process a drilling permit in 10 days — although that drilling activity is predominately on private lands. Transferring federal lands to Wyoming could make the permitting process more efficient, while ending a host of other federal regulations.

Wood said he believes that expediting permitting was a poor argument for transferring federal lands, which provide free recreational and hunting opportunities to the public. “Every person in this state is going to lose a place to go and things to do,” he said.

Numerous media outlets and advocacy groups have reported on Ken Ivory’s effort. Some have called his work a resurrection of the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, which began in Utah. High Country News reported on the issue. Western author Tim Egan took a stance against transferring federal lands in an opinion column called “The Geography of Nope” in the New York Times.

Ken Ivory runs a website promoting disposal of federal lands at http://www.americanlandscouncil.org.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

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Gregory Nickerson

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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  1. Miller and Ivory are both ALEC/privatization ideologues. No doubt this so-called “study” will lean heavily on PERC (Property and Environment Research Center), which has long advocated the privatization of public lands. PERC does have anecdotal evidence of individuals doing a good job as stewards, but ignore the historical record where private owners ravaged forests, streams and mountains, with horrid results lasting multiple generations. Besides, the general public supports the idea of public lands, according to surveys.

  2. A graphic example of how well this scheme works is the state of Texas, admitted to the Union with no federal or state public domain retained. Aside from the desolate Big Bend area and the dwarfish patch of Davy Crockett National Forest, Texans simply took over the sprawling old Spanish colonial land grants, and retained all the mineral rights privately — which helps explain the culture of J.R. Ewing. A huge tract of Panhandle real estate was traded to an English syndicate for its construction of the state capitol building at Austin. That was the genesis of the big XIT cattle outfit. Anyone from this part of the country who has ever lived in Texas knows the misery of having no access to public lands. Without public lands, the Rocky Mountain West would be uninhabitable for people sensitive to wilderness and open space. Don’t turn Wyoming into Texas. Don’t let uranium miners dictate public-lands policy.