We’re all getting snookered.

I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before, at least in print. I never particularly wanted to, but it fits what’s happening to Wyoming residents who are being sold a bill of goods by state legislators whose ultimate goal is to sell off our public lands to developers.

Fortunately, the law isn’t on their side. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the public can keep powerful people determined to get their way from accomplishing their goals.

The energy industry, ranchers and many Western state officials have long wanted to get their hands on public lands owned and managed by the federal government. In 1932 the feds were willing to transfer surface rights to unappropriated lands to the states, but the states couldn’t afford to manage public lands during the Great Depression.

Someone had to, though, so the federal government created the Bureau of Land Management. States soon began complaining about the BLM’s policies. It wasn’t long before Western states renewed their demand for ownership of federal lands.

Fast-forward to 1976, when Congress kept control of its public lands through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Wyoming was one of 13 states to join a movement known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” which lacked political clout to pull off its brazen takeover plan. It fizzled out during President Reagan’s second term, even though he supported the movement.

But the Sagebrush Rebellion’s spirit lives on, and proponents of turning over ownership of public lands to Western states — so they can be sold to energy companies and agricultural interests to boost state revenues — are stronger than ever.

They’re determined to use whatever subterfuge it takes to win. That includes hiding their real intention to “drill baby drill” on public lands. With Republicans controlling Congress and many state legislatures, including eternally red Wyoming, supporters have their best shot at victory on this monumentally important issue in many years.

All they have to do is ignore case law, public opinion and clear-cut fiscal arguments against their proposal and convince voters the lands would be better off in the hands of the states.

Nationally, the biggest backers of this land grab have been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the energy industry and mega-rich conservative donors.

In Wyoming, these forces have all influenced most Republican legislators to self-righteously demand the “return” of public lands to the state, even in the face of legal precedence that such a transfer is unconstitutional.

The notion these public lands actually belong to the states is emblematic of the strategy used by right-wing Republicans about many issues: say something loud and long enough and many people accept it as the truth, without question.

ALEC has pushed states to pass its model legislation to “take back” public lands. It’s a front group for conservative corporations that want to extract our minerals and profit at the expense of the public’s enjoyment of these lands through tourism, hiking, camping, hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.

Republican State Rep. Ken Ivory of Utah has used ALEC conferences to promote his “American Lands Council.” In 2012, Ivory traveled to Wyoming to testify at a legislative committee meeting, inspiring a House bill creating a task force to determine how much revenue the state is losing because of federal lands management.

But ALEC has a big credibility problem — the public is on to its promotion of unpopular and potentially unconstitutional legislation, such as “stand your ground” laws that provide a legal defense for anyone who kills a person if he believes his life is in danger.

So another group had to take over the reins. Supporters came up with the deceptively named “Environmental Policy Alliance,” which shares its EPA acronym with the federal regulator of clean air and water, the much-maligned Environmental Protection Agency.

This new EPA was founded by Richard Berman, who runs a public relations firm infamous for taking on environmentalists, animal rights groups, labor unions and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving. CBS’s “60 Minutes” dubbed him “Dr. Evil.” The organization’s website is devoted to projects like “EPA Facts” and “Green Decoys,” which “expose” environmental groups and their funding. A recent Environmental Policy Alliance post claimed a link between the Kremlin and an environmental donor.

The P.R. guru advises the big players in oil and gas, including Anadarko Petroleum, Halliburton and ExxonMobil. The New York Times obtained a secretly recorded tape of Berman speaking at a June 2014 meeting of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), a Denver-based trade organization. The newspaper reported he admitted his firm uses nonprofit organizations to hide donors’ identities.

He pitched hiring his company to wage an “endless war” against environmentalists. Berman told executives they “must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups” opposed to fracking.

Expect a steady campaign of this rancid rhetoric from the phony EPA — Environmental Policy Alliance. It’s working one state at a time to get private control of public lands, and millions of acres in Wyoming are high on its list.

The Wyoming Legislature has joined these public land exploiters. It passed Senate File 56, which will spend $75,000 to study whether the state could effectively manage public lands if the federal government relinquishes that responsibility. But that’s not how SF 56 began — as drafted, the bill stated the federal government would transfer the title of specified federal land within our borders to the state.

When Wyoming sportsmen and conservationists loudly objected, noting it could result in the state selling treasured public lands, its sponsors quickly backpedaled. Senate Majority Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who guided the bill through the Senate, said it was simply a feasibility study, not a lands transfer.

Meanwhile, House Bill 209, sponsored by Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton), sailed through the lower chamber. The bill proclaimed the transfer will be completed and Miller talked about suing the feds. HB 209 also spelled out how any money from the sale of public lands would be distributed.

Bebout — who declared it was never the state’s intention to obtain title to federal lands, much less sell them — co-sponsored Miller’s bill in the Senate. But HB 209 was assigned to the Senate Journal Committee, where it stayed until it officially died.

The study, though, is very much alive, and it could help propel Berman and his cronies to victory. They’re already winning the P.R. game here — most of the media just repeats the claim these lands must be “returned” to the state.

Here’s where the snookering comes into play. In general, the public has no idea the legal case to transfer the land is incredibly flawed and has virtually no chance of winning on its merits. The only way the supporters’ scheme could work is if a misinformed public rallies around it.

A 2012 memo from Wyoming Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah Williamson to the state’s natural resource policy adviser details why any effort to challenge the feds’ public land rights within our borders would likely fail.

What impact would Utah’s attempt to take over federal lands have in Wyoming? Utah’s law, Williamson wrote, is based on the premise that under its statehood act, the feds are required to give 5 percent of the proceeds from land sales to the state. However, it does not mandate the federal government sell its public lands.

In fact, Wyoming, Utah and five other states seeking federal lands were all required to disclaim their rights to these lands upon joining the United States. Wyoming’s 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.”

“Forever disclaim” — that sounds clear to me, and apparently to the courts, which since the mid-19th century ruled against the proposition public lands must be turned over to the states.

If the public unites against this blatant land grab, the would-be perpetrators won’t win. We’re tired of being snookered by fat cats, and we’re not going to take it any more.

Or words to that effect.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. There is a lengthy and very interesting discussion about the pros and cons of transferring federal land on the Eastmans’ Hunting Forum (under General Hunting): http://forum.eastmans.com/forum.php I encourage everyone to check it out. Lots of good information there, some factual, some opinion.

    Earl DeGroot
    Cheyenne, Wyoming

  2. Well Nicklaus,

    That, putrtrid oil field, as you describe it, has been one hundred percent under the control of the federal government since its inception. The federal government owns the surface and the minerals and is responsible for how it now looks. I don’t see the State of Wyoming doing things like burrying nuclear fuel rods in a National Forest as our federal government has done in the Black Hills. There is nice rusty chain link fence near Sundance that marks that spot. I know of a pile of asbestos that has sat on federal land since 1943. Someday the feds might do something about it. Wyoming has done a much better job with state land. Our state lands produce significant revenue for the schools.

    Doug Cooper
    Casper, Wyoming

  3. Nicolus, maybe you should get educated. Wyoming only recieved 6.8% of its surface as state land compared to states like Florida which recieved 64.3 of their surface as state land. This is a fact. The existence of Yellowstone Park before statehood eliminated the school sections that would have been in that portion of Wyoming. Wyoming recieved less state than all the other states.

    I have lived quite close to Teapot Dome most of my life and while some parts of it are disturbed, much of it is good wildlife habitat. The neighboring Salt Creek oilfield has been a popular place for hunting for many years. It was the federal government that closed Teapot Dome for hunting for nearly a century and it was the Federal government that allowed damage to occur from mineral extraction. The point is that the federal government has a much poorer track record than the State of Wyoming in managing land.

    Doug Cooper
    Casper, WY

    1. It’s actually ranked 15th in that regard, but whatever. The state gave up the land willingly in order to join the Union. We are obviously on different sides of this issue. I still can’t see the disgusting, putrid oilfield around Midwest as a positive example of good hunting grounds. The view alone is enough to make me shiver every time I drive by it. Not something I want for the entire state.

      I’ve spent a great deal of time in all sections of Wyoming. And from personal experience, the state land is often in worse shape than the public land. All of it, however, is grossly overgrazed. I highly doubt a state which has politicians with deep ranch ties has any better management ideas for our public spaces. In fact, Senator Barrasso has been trying for years to ease regulations for grazing, including removing any oversight, and doubling graze lease times. I don’t see that as a step in the right direction, and they don’t even have control over public land. A few years ago all county commissioners but one voted (pointlessly as they have no control) to remove status from all our our wilderness study areas in the state, and open them up for ‘multiple use’. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of our state and local politicians speak volumes.

      I’m not saying the federal government does a great job. But they have maintained at least some control over how our lands are controlled.

      Nicolaus Wegner
      Casper, Wyoming

  4. Maybe Kerry Drake has not noticed that the federal government just sold the 12,000 acre Teapot Dome Naval Oil Reserve. The federal government never allowed hunting at Teapot Dome but now it is possible because its private land. Natrona County will benefit from increased property taxes that will bring in more revenue than the payment in lieu of taxes they received when it was federal land.

    Wyoming received the least amount of state land of all of the fifty states. The federal government should at least make up for this historic oversight. There is very little that the federal government manages well. Why not try a Wyoming solution.

    Doug Cooper
    Casper, WY

    1. Doug, amusing that you would use the Teapot Dome Naval Oil Reserve as an example of a positive outlook. I’m hoping you are aware of the Teapot Dome scandal? Let’s not even get into how messed up that area is. I can think of tons of different public land areas close to Casper with much better wildlife habitat that are freely open to hunting and public use. And they don’t require special permission.

      Also, please get your facts straight. Disinformation and uninformed citizens are not helping this situation any. Wyoming by no means has the least amount of state land.
      http://www.nrcm.org/documents/publiclandownership.pdf

      Nicolaus Wegner
      Casper, WY

  5. Back in the late 1990s – early 2000s, I read through the Wyoming Republican Party platform. There were references to “transferring federal land to state ownership” and further, to “transfer state lands to private ownership.” Seemed pretty simple to me: federal land should become private land.
    This was, and still is, one of the basic “principles” of the Republican Party. Those who belong to this political party support this position – through ignorance, greed, or just plain stupidity (if they hunt and fish on public land).

    Dave Haire
    Powell, WY

  6. Thank you Kerry for fighting for our public lands!

    I am 100 percent against transferring them to the state or privatizing them.

    Earl DeGroot
    Cheyenne, WY

  7. I agree with Barry Reiswig. If you believe that this state takeover of federal lands is based on some altruistic desire to give the people of Wyoming more access to public lands, think again. It is an attempt to make public lands available to more of those folks who wish to divide and conquer in the name of whatever business they represent. Sheridan County is a great example of how an industry (methane) came in, made big money, and then left behind the tainted pools of water leeching into aquifers , abandoned equipment littering the hillsides, useless roads carved into open spaces. and cheated ranchers left to try to clean up the mess. Do a fly over and see for yourself.

    Emily Nelson
    Sheridan, WY

  8. Drake is right. This is nothing more than the modern day robber barons, the wealthy and big corporations, (one and the same) wanting to steal our land, something they have been after for decades. They (Congress) stole the land from the Indians, now they want to steal it from us, Don’t let them do it. Throw the money-changers out of the temple! If you are a hunter, angler, camper, hiker, horseback rider will lose it all. We will be displaced from our own land by the modern day robber barons, energy industry, grazers, miners, etc. The notion that the State will do a better job of managing our public lands is idiotic beyond belief. They will simply get out of the way while the robber barons destroy it and get rich. I can just see the truckloads of money on their way to Houston and Amarillaaa.

    Barry Reiswig
    Cody, WY

  9. No middle ground in your reporting is there? No balance- no opposing views– just a liberal bent- your as bad to left as is Fox news to right– How about the whole truth for a change? Do you have it in you or are just spousing your agenda? We deserve truthful-accurate reporting not your left wing spew—- Thanks for nothing- if this where on paper it would be bung fodder—- Middle america- mostly independent and seeking truth in journalism– unbiased truth— let the sun shine sugar!

    Cody Brinton
    Jackson, WY

    1. I was one of the conservationists who objected to both bills as originally written. SF 56 was, in my opinion, amended in a way that offers both sides of this issue some space and an opportunity to better understand the cost of managing – in partnership with the BLM and other federal agencies – public land in Wyoming. An unbiased, non-directed, independent study by a qualified consultant will serve both sides of this issue well. In the meanwhile I believe its important to keep thinking about this and to engage in reasonable conversations and debate. There is potentially a lot at stake for everyone in WY, the U.S. and future generations. Our open spaces and access to them are a precious gift that others ‘paid forward’ to us and I am grateful to live in a state where everyone cares so much about them.

      Finally, Kerry Drake is an award winning journalist and has dedicated his career to the highest journalistic standards. His contribuitions to Wyoming as a reporter and columnist are without peer. I note that this is a column and reflects the perspective (opinion) of its author. In that way it differs from the balanced news reporting that is offered everyday in WyoFile.

      Richard Garrett
      Lander, WY

  10. More disinformation and strawman arguments from Mr. Drake.

    1. Citizen and legislators have proposed that the State of Wyoming take ownership of the lands, not “sell off our public lands to developers.”

    2. Transfer of federal lands to state ownership is not unconstitutional. Disclaiming ownership doesn’t mean that the federal government can’t be convinced to transfer the lands to state ownership, which the federal government did for the first 100 years of existence for all states east of Wyoming, then stopped when the progressives got control of Washington DC at the beginning of the 20th century. Here’s a map of federally owned lands – note the pattern that transfer to state and private interests essentially stopped where the plains end. http://nationalmap.gov/small_scale/printable/images/pdf/fedlands/fedlands3.pdf

    3. The checkboard land ownership pattern of much of Wyoming are both ridiculous and unmanageable. The best solution to this problem is convert all federal surface and subsurface ownership claims to state ownership.

    Drake simply does not trust Wyoming citizens, through the legislature, to manage the lands. Quite frankly, he trusts federal control (bureaucrats) more than he trusts state control (bureaucrats). He can’t come out and say that directly, but we all know the truth about progressives like him who never met a federal nanny state regulation that he didn’t like.

    Don Wills
    Pine Bluffs, WY

    1. Don, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the only major checkerboard land in Wyoming is along I-80. This was due to the railroad. There are vast swaths of pure BLM land in Wyoming. Several basins worth. Have a look at a public land map of Wyoming. And the only national forest area in Wyoming with checkerboard issues is Medicine Bow.

      There is no one that I personally know that is ok with public lands being transferred to the state. We all understand where that would lead.

      You know who I don’t trust? Welfare ranchers and politicians with deep ties to million dollar ranch families, and senators who receive donations from major industrial corporations. Their actions have spoken loudly before this last push by the senate.

      Nicolaus Wegner
      Casper, WY