Wetlands mark the inlet at New Fork Lake, where the state will study a proposal to raise the outlet dam by 3-4 feet. New Fork Lake is within 400 feet of the Bridger Wilderness in the Wind River Range of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Wyoming this week could advance plans for a bigger dam at New Fork Lake, a study to manage federal lands and a lease that could enable development in core sage grouse habitat.

Three separate actions are contemplated by different Wyoming agencies on a day that has statewide implications for Wyoming’s natural resources. The Wyoming Water Development Commission considers the New Fork Lake Dam enlargement Thursday in Cheyenne. The State Board of Land Commissioners mulls a special lease of state trust lands the same day. That lease to a “conservation bank” could offset and enable development in greater sage grouse core habitat.

The state also will open proposals Thursday from contractors seeking to study Wyoming’s management of federal lands. That study would inform the Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee of the costs, revenue advantages and disadvantages of managing federal lands, not including wilderness areas, national parks and refuges, if it were possible for Wyoming to take over such responsibilities.

New Fork Lake Dam enlargement

The Wyoming Water Development Commission will meet in Cheyenne on Thursday to consider a proposed $296,000 contract (see proposed contract below) with RJH Consultants, Inc. of Englewood, Colorado to investigate the New Fork Lake Dam proposal. The New Fork Lake Irrigation District proposed raising the dam 3-4 feet to increase the storage capacity by an estimated 4,000–5,200 acre-feet. The popular recreation spot on the western edge of the Wind River Mountains is within 400 feet of the Bridger Wilderness.

Ninety-one landowners irrigate 14,613 acres in the New Fork Lake irrigation district. The lake is located in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and already is dammed at its outlet. The existing structure raises the lake’s natural water level by several feet during spring runoff. When that water is drawn down for irrigation, eroded banks are exposed, as is a sand and mud flat at the lake’s inlet.

“An enlargement of the existing New Fork Lake Dam would provide a supplemental source of late season water if needed, particularly in dry years, while also addressing the aging structure’s integrity,” according to state documents outlining the proposal.

Ultimately, the consultant would develop the “top three storage alternatives.” A draft report is due July 1, 2016 and a final report by September that year. The contract calls for public involvement.

“One meeting shall be conducted early in the project schedule,” the proposed contract says.

An irrigation district seeks to raise the level of the dam at New Fork Lake by 3-4 feet. The state this week reviews a proposed contract to study the proposal. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

In developing the top three storage alternatives, the consultant “will investigate potential water conservation measures and their relationship with storage,” the proposed contract says. The consultant will screen alternatives for “potential fatal flaws.”

The top three storage alternatives would be studied in relation to various state and federal laws. “It is assumed that jurisdiction would be assumed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and that wetland mitigation will be required on perennial flowing streams,” the proposed contract states. “The Consultant will also estimate the number of acres of wetland mitigation likely to be required at each potential site and recommend and outline a process which best implements the watershed approach….”

Sage grouse mitigation bank

On Thursday the State Board of Land Commissioners — Wyoming’s top five elected officials — will consider a special lease for 33,280 acres of state trust lands in and around the Pathfinder Ranch 50 miles southwest of Casper.

The lease is proposed with the Sweetwater River Conservancy Greater Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Bank, a limited liability company that includes several Pathfinder Ranch-area holdings. Those are the Pathfinder Ranch, Cardwell Ranch, Miracle Mile Ranch, Perkins Parcel, East Cardwell, Bummer, and Two Iron Ranch. The state calls them “Pathfinder Ranches” and “Pathfinder Ranch.”

Entrance to the Pathfinder Ranch southwest of Casper where ranch owners and neighbors have set up a company to deal in “habitat conservation credits.” The goal is to improve habitat at Pathfinder ranches when development mars other greater sage grouse core habitat. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The 33,280 acres would be rented for $1 an acre a year, or 6.2 percent of the sale of “habitat conservation credits,” whichever is greater. That rate would continue until the state collects $2 million. After that point, the lease would cost 6.2 percent of the sale of conservation credits only, and the minimum $1 per acre would not apply. “All revenues received pursuant to the special use lease would be in addition to the state grazing and agricultural lease rental received by the Board,” according to documents prepared for Thursday’s meeting.

The lease would last for 75 years.

The mitigation bank seeks to improve greater sage grouse habitat on and around the Pathfinder Ranch. “Significant portions of this special use lease application site are in sage grouse habitat core area,” board documents say, “but, unlike other proposed activities, this particular special use lease is specifically designed to conserve and protect sage-grouse habitat.”

The conservation bank could enable development in other greater sage grouse habitat protected by Gov. Matt Mead’s core-area strategy and greater sage grouse executive order, board documents say. “The habitat conservation credits could serve to open state trust lands that are currently constrained by core area and other protective stipulations to development,” the agenda item says.

How much the “habitat conservation credits” are sold for will remain secret, according to the lease proposal. “To protect its ability to market credits, Sweetwater River Conservancy has explicitly retained the ability to withhold credit pricing information as confidential business information,” the lease proposal states.

Total payments from conservation credits paid to the state will be publicly available.

Wyoming would lease the state lands in blue to the Sweetwater River Conservancy Conservation Bank as part of an effort to help greater sage grouse while allowing development of their habitat. (Wyoming State Land Office)

The state says it has determined that the secret system is OK. “[Office of State Lands and Investments] has conducted a brief economic analysis of the sample rates offered, and had taken into account the direct and indirect benefits of the Conservation Bank to the trust’s remaining land assets,” the lease proposal says. “OSLI has found the compensation model adequate for this purpose.”

Even the method of creating “habitat conservation credits,” appears to be kept under wraps. The system is “based upon proprietary modeling and mapping technology controlled by the Sweetwater River Conservancy and approved for use by federal and state agencies,” the lease proposal says.

For a complete agenda of the State Board of Land Commissioners meeting, click here.

Federal land management study

The Office of State Land and Investments has advertised for proposals to study the management of federal lands in Wyoming and bids are scheduled to be opened Thursday. The effort follows the Legislature’s 2015 law allocating $75,000 for the research.

The bill initially sought a study to transfer federal lands in Wyoming to state ownership, but it was amended to probe management only. It is one of many western state initiatives to boot the federal government off property that’s owned by all Americans and turn either that land, or its management, over to states.

The western states’ efforts continue despite language in state constitutions and the laws that created them that say the federal government would continue to own significant holdings west of the Mississippi.

Although bids are scheduled to be opened Thursday, they may not be available for comparison by the public. The request for proposals says that bids will be kept secret until a contract is awarded. “Proposal information is restricted and not publicly available until after the award of the Contract by the Procurement Section,” the request for proposals says.

The final product will include “a proposed plan for the administration, management, and use of the federal public lands in the State of Wyoming under the principle of multiple use and sustained yield…”

The law enabling the study, and the RFP, exclude federal wilderness and conservation areas and lands administered by the departments of energy and defense, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. The proposal calls for analysis that considers continued public access for hunting, fishing and recreation.

The final report is due to the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee by Nov. 30, 2016.

The contractor who wins the bid must identify the lands, interest, rights and uses and must make an economic analysis of costs “directly incident to the management of the lands.” The contractor will compare likely costs for the state to those incurred by the federal government today. The comparison “shall consider differing land management objectives and practices,” the request says.

The contractor also will recommend sources of revenue to pay for the administration and maintenance of the lands, “including appropriate fees to charge the federal government for the management of The Lands.” The report should include potential revenue and its distribution from the lands in question.

Proposed contract for New Fork Lake Dam enlargement:

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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