Buffalo Bill Cody, with goatee, at the entrance to Shoshone Caverns National Monument in 1909. The dog at left "discovered" the cave while hunting a mountain lion with Ned Frost. Wyoming took over management of the cave, but ultimately returned it to the federal government, but not before parts of it were ruined. (F. J. Hiscock/Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources)

A Wyoming House bill demanding the transfer of vast tracts of federal lands to Wyoming could die after being assigned to a Senate committee that’s known as a graveyard for legislation.

Assignment to its Journal Committee is the second indication from the Senate about how that body feels about joining an improbable Western movement to take over federal property. The Senate had rejected the “transfer” idea earlier in the 2015 legislative session when it amended its own transfer bill SF-56 — Study on management of public lands. Instead of demanding ownership of federal property, the Senate bill now would study Wyoming only managing federal lands, not owning them.

The Senate’s management bill provides $100,000 for the research. Whoever undertakes that review might start with an existing example of failed state management of federal property, a Wyoming history professor said.

That case study began in the 1950s when the city of Cody took over Shoshone Cavern National Monument only to see irreparable damage to an irreplaceable resource, University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts said. “It’s really too bad that the story isn’t better known,” Roberts said of the cave, which was championed by Buffalo Bill Cody and which contained enchanting crystal formations.

Remote and inaccessible, it was first managed by the National Park Service, which early in the 1900s had its hands full with nearby Yellowstone. “The city of Cody said ‘we can do a better job, why doesn’t the federal government just give us the site,’” Roberts said. Cody got title to the cave in the early years of the Eisenhower administration, but the town didn’t even want to run the site itself. “The City of Cody did some looking around and realized they would probably have to put in hands of a concessionaire and that they did,” he said.

But no concessionaire could make the site work as a significant, sustaining tourism magnet. Management passed through the hands of several concessioners, some of whom “tried to sell off crystals,” Roberts said. “The resource is forever damaged.

“It’s more or less destroyed,” said Roberts, who wrote a book “Cody’s Cave” about the fiasco.  “In 1976 the City of Cody rather quietly turned the site back to the federal government. Now it’s just simply a hole in the ground with a metal grate across with a padlock.”

Study would exclude parks, wilderness areas

The Senate’s bill would allocate $100,000 to the Office of State Lands and Investments for the study. Research would probe what it would cost and gain Wyoming to manage all but wilderness areas and lands administered by the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, departments of energy and defense and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Of Wyoming’s roughly 98,000 square miles, more than 48 percent or some 30 million acres, is public land owned by the federal government. The BLM alone manages more than 17.5 million acres in Wyoming.

The study would develop a plan to administer and manage federal property under a sustained-yield, multiple-use principle. Management would include “a pledge to maintain public access to the lands for hunting, fishing and recreation subject to closure for special circumstances including public safety and environmental sensitivity,” the bill says.

An economic review would add up management costs and compare them to federal costs. Minerals — oil and gas and coal — would remain under federal ownership. The study would identify a source of revenue to manage the federal property “including appropriate fees to charge the federal government for management of the specified lands,” the bill says.

The study also would compare what revenue state and local governments get from federal property today, compared to what they might get under state management. A report would be due by Nov. 30, 2016, and the Select Federal Natural Resource Committee would consider recommendations and propose legislation as it sees fit.

Gov. Matt Mead views a photograph Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has just taken of antelope migrating near Trappers Point in Sublette Ccounty last fall. In 2013, Mead vetoed portions of a federal land transfer study that would have funded his staff’s involvement, citing a legal analysis by his attorney general. Jewell’s agency oversees the BLM, which manages more than 17 million acres of federal property in Wyoming that some lawmakers would like to see turned over to the state. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

What the bill doesn’t call for is a specific assessment of the probability that the federal government — and the American people — would hand over the keys to millions of acres of public property. Before any agency would surrender management, federal laws require it to ask all American citizens their view, said Steve Kilpatrick, director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. Eight groups, in addition to Kilpatrick’s, make up the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance that’s fighting state transfer and management. “What would the nation have to say,” he asked.

“It would be much wiser to spend that money to launch community coalitions that would address conflicts on federal property,” he said. He pointed to the Greater Little Mountain Coalition in Sweetwater County where sportsmen, residents, business owners and union workers seek to preserve the rugged landscape, wildlife and sensitive species in the high-desert habitat. “I’d rather take $100,000 and start a bunch of those around the state,” he said. “If we’re having a disconnect with our federal agency, lets break it down to a smaller group where we get eye contact.”

Emotions rage

“Transfer” of federal lands to Wyoming is something the state agreed to forgo when it was admitted to the Union in 1890. Article 21 Section 26 of the Wyoming Constitution states “The people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof…” The Statehood Act says the same thing, “that the State of Wyoming shall not be entitled to any further or other grants of land …”

Talk of trying to take over federal lands stirs emotions, Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) told constituents in an email about House Bill 209 — Transfer of federal lands. State representatives passed it 36-22 on Feb. 6. As a co-sponsor, she’s gotten a lot of comments, she said. “To those of you that didn’t send a civil note, or called me names, please re-think your approach,” she wrote Feb. 8. In a 3,000-word essay she laid out why it’s time for Wyoming to take over federal property.

“According to the Sutherland Institute, with assistance from Dr. Tim Considine, an economist at the University of Wyoming, on average over 12 Western states, the federal government loses 62¢ per acre it manages; states earn over $6 per acre,” she wrote. “And, THAT, my friends, is how we can possibly ‘afford’ to manage the land. Whether it is energy, minerals, timber, agriculture, tourism, hunting, fishing or recreation, public lands offer vast economic opportunities that, when managed wisely, can significantly improve the economy, and the lands, of Wyoming.”

The Sutherland Institute seeks to educate Utah lawmakers in “authentic conservatism,” its website says. Its philosophy is based on seven principles: personal responsibility as the basis of self-government; family as the fundamental unit of society; religion as the moral compass of human progress; private property as the cornerstone of economic freedom; free markets as the engine of economic prosperity; charity as the wellspring of a caring community; and limited government as the essence of good government.

In an opinion piece by Carl Graham, Director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Self-Government in the West, the author referred to Considine’s research that compared oil and gas activity on public and private land. While critics have lashed out at Considine’s pro-industry positions, Graham sides with the professor in a piece titled How the West Could Be Won Again.  “As it stands, the production of oil and gas on private property in the region has significantly outpaced production from federal lands,” Graham wrote of Considine’s study. “While crude oil output on federal lands in the region increased almost 14 percent since 2009, production on private lands has increased twice as much, at 28 percent.”

Despite her advocacy, which goes on for nine typewritten pages, Halverson appeared to understand the slim chances for HB 209 moving through the Senate. “I have written to the Journal Committee asking them when they plan to hear our bill,” she wrote in an email. “See? I have a sense of humor!”

Wyoming folk may not want to go along

Several recent surveys have revealed support for federal lands in the West, for environmental protection and for their management remaining with the federal government. One six–state poll said respondents by a 72 to 23 margin believe such lands are American, not state places. A bi-partisan research team of Public Opinion Strategies (R) and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (D) conducted the poll in September 2014. A breakdown of Wyoming residents shows 48 to 46 percent opposed to a land transfer, a difference smaller than the survey’s margin of error.

The same researchers also teamed with the Colorado College “State of the Rockies Project” for its “Conservation in the West” poll at the start of 2015. Among the findings for Wyoming is that 75 percent of respondents believes it is very important to ensure recreational access. In contrast, 43 percent believes the same for grazing. Another 74 percent favors water conservation over diversion; only 15 percent would see more water turned out from rivers.

Opponents of bills that would transfer some federal public lands or their management to the state fear that access, like to this route in Cache Creek Canyon near Jackson, may be cut off. Bills in the Wyoming Legislature contain language ensuring access, but that hasn’t stopped criticism of the legislation. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Opposition to state management exists even in counties dependent on mineral extraction. For example, Sweetwater County commissioners wrote a letter to their legislative delegation Jan. 29 opposing transfer of title or management of federal lands. The cost of administration was one reason.

“The BLM in Wyoming has 668 full time employees and an annual operating budget of approximately 105 million dollars to manage its 18 million acres of surface ownership and 40 million acres of mineral estate” the letter said. In contrast, the state has 4 million acres of State Trust Lands, including surface and mineral estate and has 101 employees and an $18.4-million budget, the letter said.

Sweetwater and the state’s 22 other counties expect to each get $1 million from Wyoming to help fund operations this year, the letter said. Commissioners wonder where the rest would come from if federal lands also come under state purview. “Sweetwater County finds it doubtful that the state can allocate $105 million … on an annual basis to properly manage federal lands placed under its control,” commissioners wrote.

The county also complained about potential loss of public access, loss of multiple use and loss of environmental protections. Wyoming residents may not want to see a dramatic shift in priorities when it comes to public land uses, Kilpatrick said.

Federal lands offer Americans numerous benefits, including the simple pleasure of hiking and antler collecting. Some lawmakers say Wyoming could do a better job running public property while others fear state management wouldn’t take into account intangible assets like open space and clean environments that citizens today take for granted. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“If Wyoming wants to manage federal lands, doesn’t it want to do so to its benefit,” he said. “The fear is a difference in philosophy in how the state would manage versus the way the federal government would manage.” The federal government manages land for some income, but not exclusively based on economic return, he said.

There are intangibles, too, he said. Those include things like memorable outdoor experiences and knowing there will be an environmental legacy for generations. “That’s hard to put an economic value on,” Kilpatrick said. “There’s no definitive tangible (asset) brought in from that.” The property is “for the people of the nation (and) some of it many not be (managed) in a profitable way.”

HB 209 Transfer of Federal Lands
Third Reading

Representative(s) Allen, Baker, Brown (speaker), Burkhart, Campbell, Cannady, Clem, Edmonds, Edwards, Eklund, Greear, Halverson, Harshman, Hunt, Jaggi, Kasperik, Kirkbride, Kroeker, Larsen, Lloyd, Laursen (Dan), Lindholm, Lockhart, Loucks, Madden, McKim, Miller, Moniz, Patton, Paxton, Piiparinen, Pownall, Reeder, Steinmetz, Walters, Wilson, Winters

Representative(s) Baldwin, Barlow, Berger, Blackburn, Blake, Byrd, Connolly, Dayton, Esquibel, Freeman, Harvey, Krone, Nicholas, Northrup, Pelkey, Petroff, Schwartz, Sommers, Stubson, Throne, Zwonitzer (Dan), Zwonitzer (David). Excused: Representative(s) Gay, Jennings.
Ayes 36

Nays 22

Excused 2

Absent 0

Conflicts 0

On the other hand, there are good figures for tourists’ expenditures, which are easily attributed to the state’s wide-open spaces. “We can estimate $4.4 billion in tourism,” Kilpatrick said.

Talk of a Wyoming takeover may have some political cachet in communities where stockmen and women are told when and where they can’t graze, where energy developers have to follow rules protecting wildlife and endangered species. However, some of those who now complain about regulations may be the source of those rules, Kilpatrick said. ”We had a lot of things that caused the environment to degrade,” he said. “We did things that were abusive to the landscape.

“A good example is timber harvest,” he said. “We took more than was sustainable … Wyoming pushed for that. We messed up and got shut down.” Now, residents are saying “Oh, it’s the darn federal government being too heavy-handed,” Kilpatrick said. The thinking among those wanting control is, “We’ll manage them better.”

At the same time, federal critics have attacked the budgets of western land management agencies like the Forest Service and BLM. “We, the public, through our federal representatives have stripped funding,” Kilpatrick said. “If you cut their budget and then become ill-content with their performance, that seems a bit counter. Why complain about something we cut funding to? You can’t have both.”

Federal laws still would guide management of federal property, even if Wyoming were the manager, Kilpatrick said. “They’re still going to ask the state to manage it for endangered species … good healthy streams and forests,” he said. “They’re still going to hold all the minerals. I don’t know what we gain.”

For Kilpatrick and many sportsmen he represents there could be something to lose. That would be a clean and open environment they experiences while outdoors. “To stand out there on that ridge with the setting sun in crisp clean air, seeing wildlife move around — that’s why they come here,” he said. “I can’t say our federal lands are being woefully mismanaged. We’re sort of wondering where the fundamental disconnect is between legislators and their constituents.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Two comments:
    1) It seems that the legislators most in support of the federal lands transfer to the state are in positions in private industry to most benefit from such a transfer. The conflict of interest(s) issue alone would be a really tough nut to crack, even if there was broad constituent support in the state for the transfer. This $100,000 research project appears to me to be merely “cosmetic” and of no real substance, just political.
    2) A more rational approach, in my opinion, is to look at specific exchange possibilities where the local / state / federal interests are more clearly defined. BLM and State Lands, from the instigation of Game & Fish, have been looking at an exchange near Lander for a couple of years. The “Lander Front” exchange project would put in BLM hands environmentally sensitive areas near Lander currently belonging to State Lands, and in exchange the state would get energy development acreage in eastern Fremont County currently belonging to BLM. I just don’t see a “one size fits all” approach working for a state as geographically large as Wyoming, but a more locally focused exchange strategy might work in specific circumstances where the state and federal interests are more clearly focused.

    Jeff Hansen