An antelope hunter camps on BLM land in Wyoming. (Steven Brutger)

This summer I hired a cowboy and his two pack animals to carry our rock climbing gear and food into the alpine country of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. His two pack animals were named Pence and The Donald. When I assumed these monikers meant he must be conservative, he said with a grin, “well, guess it depends on what you think the intelligence of a pack horse really is.” In further conversations, it was clear that he treasured our public lands in Wyoming and knew their economic value to his outfitting operation.

Several years earlier, I’d hired another cowboy and his beasts, again to get deep into the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area to ascend an unclimbed 1,500-foot granite face. 

This outfitter made most of his living guiding non-resident hunters on U.S. Forest Service land. He grumped incessantly about how the “feds were stealing our land” and said the feds “should sell the Forest Service, sell the national parks, sell it all to the highest bidder.” 

When I suggested that if this happened, his livelihood as an outfitter would end, he couldn’t seem to grasp the implications of what he espoused. Exasperated, I said, “so you’d rather have a Saudi or Chinese billionaire buy the land, fence it, and put up No Trespassing signs!?” We didn’t talk much after that.

Now it’s November, the heart of the hunting season. Like many Wyomingites, I grew up hunting and fishing on public lands, both state and federal. Over 48% of Wyoming lands are held in the public trust by the federal government, guaranteeing that access is equal and often free to all. In Wyoming, the Bureau of Land Management administers 27,860 square miles — almost 18 million acres; the U.S. Forest Service runs 14,460 square miles — over 9 million acres. Another 5.6% of Wyoming lands are managed by the state government. As an American, this land is your land. Indeed, this land is literally your own backyard.

Compare this to another blazing red state, Texas, where 95% of the land is held privately. You want to hunt in Texas, you often must pay a landowner to access their land, and sometimes even hire an outfitter. Is this what Wyoming hunters want?

When you hear the idea that we should “take back federal land,” remember that 100% of Wyoming was tribal land before whites arrived. Furthermore, notwithstanding the dishonorable series of broken treaties with Native Americans, the real legacy of genocide and land acquisition, Wyoming, like other Western territories as they became states, ceded control over unappropriated land. 

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It’s in our state constitution. Article 1, Section 26 states: “the people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands.” You can’t take back what was not yours in the first place.

Even if you could amend the Wyoming Constitution, as some have suggested, the U.S. Constitution is also quite clear: “Congress shall have power to dispose and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States …” (Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2). Furthermore, the Supreme Court, in an early ruling that has been upheld numerous times, said Congress has the “absolute right” to manage federal lands. As far back as 1922, the Supreme Court “firmly settled that Congress may prescribe rules respecting the use of public lands.”

Even if in some fantasy world where you could change both constitutions to allow the state to control federal lands, Wyoming, a state facing a $1 billion deficit, would not have funds to administer these lands. Even if it was so bold as to sell large tracts of federal land, you can guarantee the local rancher on his four-wheeler wouldn’t have the money to buy it. Wyoming would become the exclusive, private playground of the obscenely wealthy.

If you hunt, fish, climb, hike, ride, bird watch or bike — some of the best reasons to live in this state — you should be in favor of preserving the status of public land in perpetuity.

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  1. This is just a technical correction. The constitutional reference to “the people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands.” is Article 21, section 26. Article 1 section 26 references treason.
    Thanks for a great article Mark.

  2. Mr. Jenkins,

    I agree with the basic premise of your editorial that public lands are vital for us. In the spirit of accuracy you refer to Cloud Peak Wilderness Area several times. Under the 1984 Wyoming wilderness bill it stated, “as generally depicted on a map entitled “Cloud Peak Wilderness Area—Proposed”, dated September 1984, and which shall be known as the Cloud Peak Wilderness.

    I do hope that your climbing was practiced with the best Leave No Trace efforts.


  3. I truly respect, understand, and appreciate this article in preserving the beautiful place that is Wyoming.
    Question for your readers:
    To preserve this beautiful place takes money and unfortunately respect, understanding, and appreciation for ones state does pay the bills. It would however if the residents of this beautiful state proved their appreciation through the appropriations of a “State Tax!” Unfortunately the residents of this beautiful state may NOT appreciate it enough for that. Well, there is still legalizing marijuana on the table or even going full Casino gambling, but most don’t want that either.
    So, I say to truly appreciate something beautiful, ALL of us have to make sacrifices to keep the liberties we take. Is your public land worth appreciating? If it is, then it’s time to start contributing liberties than blindly taking them.
    In these trying times of state wide financial hardship WE THE PEOPLE need to stand resolute before big government starts taking liberties verses providing them.
    In conclusion, I DO NOT believe a state tax is an answer. Although, privatizing land maybe a more appropriate alternative in order for land owning residents to show their appreciation in taxes. Yes, the reference to Texas is correct in that land owners charge a significant lease from hunters, but those funds offset their taxes and allow land owners a federal tax deduction.
    Finally, it seems that most our residents are NOT willing to give anything (solutions) while taking liberties whether we lose some or all. When presenting an opportunity, I believe more appropriate solutions should follow before the presentation of any additional opportunities. Let’s stop standing in the rain complaining how wet it’s making us!!

  4. Excellent commentary and real life example, which I too have heard a number of times. It’s frustrating that the things that make Wyoming one of the best outdoor experiences (Public Land access), remains a controversial subject with conservatives that dislike the Federal Government. If we lost those federal lands in Wyoming, I don’t think I, as a Wyoming native, I would care to live here any longer. Keep it public, in well managed public hands. Thanks for the article.

  5. Thank you for this article. You succinctly and elegantly said what I feel passionate about. I have lived where it’s hard to find a place to take a walk in nature because of so much privately owned land. It’s also sad to see delicate habitats being bulldozed for development in the name of “progress”. I have been deflated by watching the state of Utah, especially around Zion National Park (St.George, Washington, Hurricane) building tract after tract of cheek to jowl homes that use a lot of water that comes from I don’t know where. Actually, I do and it’s a crime against humanity and thoughtless destruction of desert paradise. Thank goodness for public lands. I’m going to display your article where anyone who comes to our home will see it. You’re also a great inspiration for my two University of Wyoming students, who both are heavily bent toward humanities and philosophy.


  6. Conserving public lands, which can never be replaced, shouldn’t be an issue that defines liberal or conservative ideology. It should be a goal of all people who value open space, wildlife and public access. Anyone who advocates otherwise wants to change the very essence of what Wyoming is. Without public land, Wyoming wouldn’t be recognizable by those who call it home.

  7. Excellent insight .I only wish more Wyoming residents would read and understand your article. I really enjoyed the guide’s names for his pack mules, but the mules have to do honest labor which separates them from their namesakes.

    1. James, you hit the nail squarely on the head! Love mules for a hard days work, their strength, and mule “smarts”, they are damn good at all things mule :)… quite unlike their namesakes. And, yes I fully appreciate and support the point of the article – a call to all regardless of political affiliation to pay attention to policy and governance which impacts our love and use of public lands!!!

  8. Completely true! Sadly many Wyomingites that enjoy the great and rare privilege/right to use and enjoy public lands don’t realize that they could give that up by buying into the notion that the stae could manage it better. States like Texas and California adopted state control of public lands and it quickly became privatized.