Many people say transparency in government is a wonderful thing.

I wouldn’t know. I live in Wyoming.

All right, perhaps that is a bit harsh. But how are people supposed to feel after being the victims of a legislative bait-and-switch stunt like the public lands hearing at a Cheyenne meeting last Wednesday? The vast majority of the 100-plus attendees thought the panel would take testimony about a controversial proposed constitutional amendment that would supposedly allow Wyoming to prepare for the possibility the feds may someday turn over management of federal lands to the state.

These citizens believed they would have their say because the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee told them in Riverton on Nov. 9 that a subcommittee would take public comments about the amendment at the Cheyenne meeting.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper), began the session by telling the crowd that the purpose of the hearing was to work on the language of the amendment and try to improve it, not for the public to state its agreement or opposition to the proposal itself. Several attendees called out at once to let the chairman know they felt misled. Stubson told them the subcommittee wasn’t going to tolerate any “shout-outs” from the crowd.

“We don’t support any of the language because we don’t support the amendment,” Casey Quinn of the Powder River Basin Resource Council said, earning loud applause.

“That’s fair enough,” Stubson said. “But you’re going to have lots of opportunities to grab your legislator by the scruff of the neck and tell them that’s the case, but that’s not the purpose of the meeting.”

But a private conversation with a legislator doesn’t mean as much as expressing one’s opposition at a public hearing where testimony is recorded. There’s too much of a chance the Legislature can pass a measure and a lawmaker can later explain, “Gee, no one told me they didn’t like it.”

Gary Long of Cheyenne noted the irony of the state wanting to take over management of federal lands. “One thing I find rewarding about the federal system — good, bad or indifferent — is everyone has a place at the table,” he said. “It’s like democracy. Democracy’s tough, but it works.”

In Riverton last month the full six-member select committee approved a Senate joint resolution calling for a public vote on the amendment. But that can occur only after two-thirds of both the House and Senate agree to put it on the ballot, so a lot of hurdles remain for supporters.

The select committee’s chairman is Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who has salivated over the idea of a federal land transfer to the state for several sessions. As the new Senate president, Bebout doesn’t even have to take the risk of sending his brainchild to a Senate committee, where the public could still negatively comment on the proposal and try to kill it. Instead, it could go directly to the full Senate and bypass the public.

That likely explains why so many people were upset at the subcommittee’s limiting testimony last week. The meeting may have been the last time the public can voice its opposition until the amendment reaches the House, where it may win approval. The House agreed to fund the federal transfer feasibility study two years ago.

The select committee could have opened its amendment to public scrutiny any time in the past two years, but the working draft wasn’t even written until about a week before the committee’s Nov. 9 meeting in Riverton.

Not exactly a heartfelt apology

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) apologized at the meeting for the amendment’s late arrival. “You have my humble and most sincere apology for not going though a larger public process,” he said. If it makes him feel better I’m glad he made the statement, but it doesn’t change the fact the citizenry has largely been left behind. And what Hicks said soon after that showed his apology was less than heartfelt.

Cheyenne attorney Larry Wolfe told the subcommittee, “Your process, I think, is not what you promised at your November meeting. Not your promises to all of these good citizens who have come here to speak. I think you have, in fact, undermined these people’s confidence in their ability to address the Legislature by limiting this hearing is what [you’ve done].”

“As a constitutional amendment every single word is going to be parsed by lawyers … so if you use language that people can disagree with, such as ‘multiple use’ and ‘sustainable yield,’ all you are doing is embedding into the constitution a whole set of controversies,” the attorney explained. “This goes to the sort of fundamental question of why you’re doing this, which is the sense that there’s some great urgency to take on this issue.

“Think about what might happen,” Wolfe continued. “A Supreme Court might rule that these lands need to be returned …. “

Hicks interrupted. “Now we’re going off and we’re going to bloviate about theories about what’s going to happen,” he said. “That’s not what we’re here to do. If we allow you to do this then we’ve got to allow everyone in this room to do this. We don’t have the time. We need to refocus our efforts. To allow Mr. Wolfe to bloviate all he wants to about legal theories and all this stuff about what may or may happen in the future … “

Several people shouted, ‘Let him talk,” and one observer said the only one bloviating was Hicks.

Wolfe regained the floor. “First of all, I don’t intend to ‘bloviate’ about anything,” he said. “If you looked at these issues realistically you would realize that you probably have a decade before any of these issues would actually come to fruition under the most optimistic of scenarios.”

He added, “If Congress were to pass a bill transferring these lands back to the state, how long do you think that process would take? Look at the [military] base closing commission. It took Congress decades to complete, and it’s still not done. So the notion that we have to vote on this in 2018 is absurd.”

I quoted the two men at length because that was my favorite exchange during the whole meeting. It may be because Wolfe spotlighted one of the major problems with the committee’s work: It isn’t remotely necessary to rush it through the legislative process. Honestly, though, I think I like it because it gave me a chance to use the word “bloviate,” which I’ve never done once in my career, let alone four times in a single column. Five if you count that last sentence.

Why kill the amendment? Let us count the ways

Supporters of the transfer obviously hope to minimize criticism of the idea by including in the amendment a prohibition of sales or land exchanges that significantly reduce the amount of public land or its value.

There’s a host of reasons to deep-six this unnecessary public lands amendment. Here are just a few:

  • When Wyoming joined the United States, it pledged in its constitution that “the people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and all title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries [of the state].” What part of “forever” do Sen. Bebout and his supporters not understand?
  • The subcommittee approved changes to the amendment suggested by the public, including a prohibition on the sale of acquired lands except for public health or welfare purposes or to public entities. But opponents fear that when the proposed amendment goes to the full select committee and the Legislature, it could be changed to allow land transfers that result in the loss of public access and/or selling or leasing the land to private interests.
  • The Legislature commissioned a $75,000 study to examine what might happen if Congress turned over the management of federal lands within our borders. The feasibility study found that the state would inherit costly wildfire and litigation issues if it were to take over management. Meanwhile, local governments would lose significant federal funding. What is the magic source of money Wyoming would get to absorb the necessary cost of paying hundreds of new workers needed to replace the federal employees who will no longer manage public lands?

Here’s the kicker about how transparent Wyoming lawmakers really want to be in passing their public lands constitutional amendment. The subcommittee will share with the full select committee the suggested changes in the amendment’s language garnered from last week’s hearing. The select committee will then vote by email — that’s right, email, not even at a public meeting — on whether to accept any of them. Bebout & Co. could easily decide, “Thanks, folks, but we don’t like what you had to say. We’re sticking with our own version.”

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Perhaps someday the people who run the Legislature will figure out how we can make all of the state’s laws just using Twitter. If there’s no public input in person, think of the savings in meeting rooms alone. Heck, we wouldn’t even need a lavishly renovated Capitol Building, just a server in someone’s basement.

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. I suggest some review the history
    on the sale of land from France during
    the Jefferson Admin.
    Are some state Senators not too
    swift on U S History?

  2. After over 40 years in Wyoming this was my first legislative participation, what a disingenuous group of representatives. I agree with Mr. Drake, this is a railroaded proposed amendment. As an experienced State and Public Lands recreational user there is no question there are serious public access limitations to State Land. As a rock collector, to access State Lands we have to buy a $75 permit in Cheyenne, get any lease holders’ lands we cross permission, if we plan to camp we have to travel off State land, and if I want to take photos of or from State Lands you risk arrest under a new State law. If you want to roam and surface collect rocks on FS or BLM you just go, and obey their limited surface protection regulations. State Lands has a very limited budget and personnel to manage State Land. You can bet, our US Congress would keep the separate mineral estate in any land exchange because of the Billions of Dollars minerals brings to the Federal budget. The very essence and culture of our State would change without the “Free to Roam” Public Lands, which brought and keeps most of us in Wyoming.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Drake!

    We cannot let the Wyoming legislature keep doing things like this! Please, people of Wyoming quit voting for these Republicans that seem to constantly create and vote for legislation that so very few of us obviously want!

    I drive an older pickup truck
    and she takes a steady hand,
    It’ll be black ice n’ snow squalls,
    all the way down to Cheyenne.
    You see we go to speak to Legislators
    about our Public Lands,
    to tell them if they know what’s good for Us,
    they’ll leave them in Public Hands.
    You see this Land is Sacred
    to our Grandads and our Sons,
    to our Grandmas and our Daughters,
    and Good Friends, every One.
    It’s where we learned to Hunt and Fish,
    It’s where we learned to Love.
    It’s where we learned Our Place on Earth
    And where we learned What we’re Made of.
    So if You’re looking to Protect these Lands,
    From evils Unexplained.
    Don’t Worry, We’ve Got This!
    THIS generation and those yet un-named.
    Forgive Us if we smell a Skunk,
    But we’re Always on High Alert,
    For Anything that would change Our Claim,
    Or would Our Public Lands subvert.
    So put your Hearts and Minds at Ease,
    In the Capitol Cheyenne,
    ‘Cause the Citizens of Wyoming,
    WILL Protect these PUBLIC LANDS!
    Through subsequent administrations,
    And some Industries’ Evil bent.
    We’ll Protect this Land we Love,
    Until Our Lives are Spent.
    And EVERY Generation will,
    Step up to the Line,
    And Fight and Fight for the Unborn’s RIGHT
    Until the End of Time.

  5. Thank you Mr. Drake for defending OUR federal lands. I was at the meeting in Cheyenne on December 14th, and your analysis of what happened is right on target. The following ten legislators have stated publicly that they support the Constitutional Amendment. I encourage everyone to contact them and give them an earful! Senator Eli Bebout, Riverton; Senator Gerald Geis, Worland; Senator Larry Hicks, Baggs; Representative Norine Kasperik, Gillette; Representative Tim Stubson, Casper; Sen. Ogden Driskill, Devils Towner; Rep. Dave Miller, Riverton; Rep. Jim Allen, Lander; Rep. Lloyd Larsen, Lander, Rep. Don Burkhart, Rawlins.

  6. I agree completely with Mr Drake’s well written article and Mr Morton’s (Cora WY), comments. Not only was the subcommittee meeting a farce, I believe it was illegal. The official bulletin posted outside meeting room and sent out on the website mislead the people into believing they could make comments on the amendment proposal. But this was not the case at all. They were instructed at the beginning of the meeting that they could only comment on the language in the amendment, not whether they were for or against it. This was blatant, arrogant behavior by the subcommittee and showed total disregard for the concerned citizens that traveled long distances in winter conditions to attend this meeting and make valid comments.
    You can count on us to pay very close attention to this proposal as it is pushed up the legislature line. People, contact your legislators and let them know that transferring public lands into State custody is a very bad idea.

  7. I agree completely Mr Morton. I believe the official bulletin posted outside the tiny meeting room was more than misleading, it was illegal. How arrogant of the subcommittee to change the posted format. You can bet we will be paying close attention to this amendment as it gets pushed up the line. Contact your legislators people. The transfer of citizens’ lands to the State is a very bad idea. They need to hear from you-the public.

  8. Thank you Mr. Drake,
    To add to your well written comments, I would add the following:
    First, holding a “public” meeting the week before Christmas was obviously scheduled to reduce public input and comment. I drove a total of eleven hours – in winter conditions – to address the failings of the proposed amendment. Second, the official notice of the meeting, as posted on the bulletin board outside the meeting room, allowed for public comment with no mention of public editing only, obviously false advertising. Third, holding a meeting in a location one fourth the size needed which forced people to pack themselves along the walls or stand in the outside corridor unable to witness the proceedings. Fourth, the committee directed participants to another room where they could “hear” the blather and not bother the committee members with their presence. All together, a coordinated, concerted effort to thwart public input. Lastly, the presence of a WY Highway Patrol officer strolling the hallway, an official police vehicle parked in front of the building. If this is merely an innocuous piece of legislation, why the extraordinary measures to limit public remarks and shush the taxpaying voters of Wyoming ?