The DeLorme Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer shows the checkerboard pattern of land ownership along the 1-80 corridor near Rawlins. Many of the private parcels — shown in white — and many more not pictured could be acquired by the state in a proposed land deal. (Matthew Copeland/WyoFile)

How should we the Wyoming public react to our elected officials’ exuberance to buy a million acres of privately held land? 

The Legislature is going to pass House Bill 249 – Investment of state funds or Senate File 138 – Investment of state funds-2, and the governor will sign the bill. A host of concerns have been raised that question the wisdom of this proposition. 

Since the two bills have passed their chambers of origin and are being considered by the other side, what should the public want out of the final version?

These considerations are essential: public involvement in the analysis process; full transparency by the state throughout the process; a full analysis of the evaluation costs to the state (which will likely run into the millions of dollars); complete due diligence by independent experts (who are not state officials) of the pros and cons of the “investment” of public funds and the year-to-year costs of managing that investment; a draft report issued well in advance of any final recommendation; ample opportunity to submit comments and present at public hearings; and final approval by the Legislature in a special session after committee consideration.

This process demands transparency, but the Legislature is not very good at that as it applies to their actions. There will also be the challenges of proprietary valuation and contract information that Occidental Petroleum will be loath to share with the public. But this is not a private transaction that can just be announced. Spending large sums of public money demands public access and scrutiny.  

Unless the final bill includes these requirements, the public should oppose it. 

There are collateral impacts of this complex bill that our leaders should consider. Groups outside of the Legislature and state government will likely conclude that they need to hire their own experts to evaluate the proposal. Counties, school boards, teachers, conservation groups, sportsmen’s organizations and livestock interests, to name a few, may feel compelled to gather their own facts and dissect the economics. 

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These groups might sue the state if it proceeds with the purchase, arguing theories about the state’s prudent investment standards, diversification protocols, endangerment of public-school funding and violations of the state’s trust obligations. The leadership should consider that a report recommending the purchase may trigger litigation to halt the purchase, which could throw a wrench into a decision timeline and derail Occidental’s desire to shake loose these properties.    

A full evaluation of this “opportunity” will cost a lot of money (way more than the $75,000 in the Senate bill). If the Legislature thinks that is a wise expenditure of already limited funds, then they should proceed. 

I don’t think in the end the state will do this. Officials will decide it is not a prudent investment; it does not diversify the state’s investment portfolio but would more deeply entwine Wyoming’s funds and its future with the fate of the dwindling mineral industry; it will require the state to operate a large and very complex business for which it has no expertise and no personnel.  

If you have an opinion, let your lawmakers, the governor (and other state officials) know soon. The Legislature adjourns this week. 

 

Lawrence J. Wolfe

Larry Wolfe is a longtime Cheyenne resident and fan of Wyoming’s public lands. He practiced energy, natural resources, public land and water law at the regional law firm Holland & Hart in its Cheyenne...

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  1. I have heard this proposed purchase likened to the Alaska Purchase and I have to agree that it will be a great deal if Wyoming can get this land for just 2 cents an acre. If that is the case then the Legislature should proceed before someone else snaps it up.

  2. One of the major land management concerns I have had is the checkerboard ownership north and south of the Union Pacific Railroad. I can point to numerous problems. I think there is a huge potential for a win-win, if the state is able to buy this land. Of course there are major concerns. I just hope they can be addressed, so we don’t lose this opportunity.

    1. “One of the major land management concerns I have had is the checkerboard ownership north and south of the Union Pacific Railroad. I”

      Keep in mind that most of the purchase is for mineral rights, not surface rights. A checkerboard will remain. And public access to state land is not guaranteed. Much of the state land in Teton County is blanketed with No Trespassing signs, even unleased land.

      The purchase may be a good investment compared to investments in monetary instruments but that doesn’t mean the investment is good for resolving the issues you care about.

  3. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Maybe just the mineral rights? Then there would be lower management costs than for surface ownership. Or how about only part of the surface acreage, parts that could be exchanged with BLM to improve recreational access.