THE BUZZ: Public Land Peril

By on January 3, 2017

Despite recent wins in the West, advocates warn the battle to protect public lands in Wyoming has just begun.

he Middle Piney Lake trailhead offers access to stunning vistas in the Wyoming Range,  where 40,000 acres of land were subject to possible oil and gas development until  a recent decision by the Forest Service. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Middle Piney Lake trailhead offers access to stunning vistas in the Wyoming Range, where 40,000 acres of land were subject to possible oil and gas development until a recent decision by the Forest Service. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – After celebrating President Barack Obama’s designation of Utah’s Bears Ears and Nevada’s Gold Butte as national monuments, conservationists are shifting their gaze back to Wyoming, where lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment in November that paves the way for state management of federal lands. While legislators have downplayed the potential consequences of the amendment, public land advocates are readying for battle.

“The bill came out of nowhere,” said Chris Merrill, associate director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “We were really surprised and caught off guard.”

Merrill says the constitutional amendment is part of a long-range plan to get around current constitutional restrictions. The Wyoming state constitution is clear in its language that sales of federal lands are prohibited.

Merrill’s organization, along with the Wyoming Wilderness Association and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, belongs to a large coalition of diverse stakeholders who have come together under the banner, Keep It Public, Wyoming. Ranging from anglers to hunters to wildlife enthusiasts, cyclists, conservationists and many others, the group hopes to influence lawmakers in the coming session.

An online petition——has gathered hundreds of names from across the state, and several communities are organizing events to battle the proposed amendment. The nonprofit organization Council for the Bighorn Range conducted public workshops last week in Buffalo and Sheridan, and will offer a workshop in Worland to detail the process the proposal will go through to reach the ballot in 2018 and how the public can stop it. Citizens can stay apprised of news and upcoming workshops and rallies through the Keep It Public, Wyoming Facebook page.

This land is… whose land?

The amendment originated in the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, which met in November. Members of the committee were slated to discuss the recent $75,000 study by Y2 Consultants of Jackson that explores the feasibility of transferring management of federal lands to the state. The study, commissioned by the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, determined it would be a costly endeavor for Wyoming to manage lands under federal mandates with little benefit to the state.

Though no specific transfers are on the table, the committee felt that the amendment was worth discussion, according to committee member Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper).

“I don’t support wholesale transfer of public lands, but I think there’s an opportunity for more responsible management,” Stubson told PJH. “What we’ve seen over and over again is that we get really good input at the state level that gets ignored once it’s sent to DC.”

However, opponents of the amendment note that public lands belong to the public at large, not just Wyomingites. And that’s a good thing, according to Bryon Lee of the Wyoming Wilderness Association. “When we start locking people out, we are forgetting that our second largest industry is recreation,” Lee said.

From Lee’s standpoint, public access depends on lands remaining public. Myriad constituents apparently share this notion. Voters and activists turned out in droves at both the November and December meetings of the select committee. Merrill noted that during the December meeting not one citizen spoke up in favor of the amendment. “The room was packed,” he said. “Even though the meeting was in Cheyenne in December, people traveled from all over the state to testify in opposition to this amendment.”

Lee says the fact that the committee decided to push the bill along in spite of overwhelming citizen opposition has left a bad taste for many. “They are not listening to outdoor public lands users. It begs the question: are they fiscally responsible and conservative? The time this will use up in session doesn’t seem responsible.”

According to Lee and others, proponents of the amendment appear out of touch both with public sentiment and economics. “Outdoor recreation brings in so much money to the state,” Lee said. “It’s going to be sustainable if we protect public lands.”

To some, the amendment may sound innocuous. It only has to do with transferred land, and seems to favor Wyoming interests. The amendment would require that lands transferred from the federal government to the state after January 1, 2019 “be managed for multiple use and sustained yield when those lands are granted for that purpose.”

However, Lee points out that public lands already are managed for multiple uses. “There already are safeguards in place for the BLM or the Forest Service to conduct public meetings when they want to open up an area to a road, or oil and gas leasing,” Lee said.  “It would be reinventing the wheel.”

Jeff Muratore, of the Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, went further and said the amendment would result in the fox tending the henhouse. “Lawmakers who currently have voted to restrict our use on state trust lands would become the stewards of these new ‘state lands,’” he said. “While currently managed for multiple use of the people, these lands in state hands would be managed for profit.”

The amendment states that lands may be exchanged, federal for state lands, however, “no net loss or net gain, in either size or value, or decrease in public access to the lands would be allowed.”

According to Merrill, the bill’s language is misleading. “If you look at the language closely, the ‘no net loss’ applied only to land exchanges,” Merrill said.  “There is no language that would prohibit the sale of public lands. That is of huge concern and it’s something the public should understand.”

The other key area of concern in the amendment is the “multiple use and sustained yield,” including oil and gas leasing as well as public access for hunting, fishing and other recreation, as prescribed by the legislature. Merrill thinks that amending the constitution to include state management is a move toward selling off lands. “Right now the cost of the management of Wyoming’s great national parks, forests, and BLM lands is spread out across hundreds of millions of taxpaying Americans,” Merrill noted. “If you say instead, ‘We’re going to take these over,’ it doesn’t make sense unless you are planning to sell off the lands.”

Committee member Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) made no bones about what  “multiple use” means: mineral development. Essentially the bill would create a situation such that newly acquired public lands could be managed in a way that mineral development, a.k.a. coal mining, could be directed by the state legislature.

The owner of an oil and gas drilling company, Bebout says the feds aren’t managing public lands the way he wants them to. But he doesn’t support taking over management without also getting the federal funding to do so. In a strange sort of double-speak, he said, “I am opposed to public lands being privatized or sold. … This is not about taking away access; it’s about protecting our state if lands should ever be transferred.”

Bebout acknowledged what the recent Y2 Consultants study concluded about Wyoming’s management of federal holdings–the state couldn’t afford it. “We’re not going to ever afford it,” he said. “I’d never support us doing it on our own. There’s no way we’d take over lands unless we see money from the feds and money from mineral extraction. We also won’t take lands over and keep the same level of bureaucracy in place.”

Momentary celebration

Despite the amendment, regional advocates for public lands are riding high as of late. In addition to Obama’s protection of 1.35 million acres of land in Utah and Nevada, people celebrated a victory here in Wyoming, where the Forest Service reissued a no-leasing decision for the Wyoming Range in December.

At least for the moment, these important tracks of land in the region are protected from oil and gas drilling, and sales to private entities. The battle to keep public control of the Wyoming Range has lasted a decade, starting in 2005 when 40,000 national forest acres were offered for oil and gas lease sale. The federal government owns the rights to drill for oil and gas, and considered leasing those rights to private companies. A period of public comment ensued.

The public’s vehement involvement was key. The unpopular decision galvanized a huge network of recreational users, outfitters and environmentalists who pushed back and ultimately won. Undersecretary of Agriculture Robert Bonnie cited the more than 62,000 public comments as influential in his decision to not allow oil and gas leasing in the Wyoming Range. Bonnie wrote in a statement that he received comments “from all over the nation, from state and local governments, organizations, and members of the local community.”

“What the Bridger-Teton heard strongly influences this decision,” he wrote.

This kind of cross-section of interests coming together signals a proud moment for Wyoming, not only because the voice of the people was so loud all together but also because a diversity of people coalesced for a common cause, setting aside other political differences.

Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance director Craig Benjamin applauded the decision. “This result is the culmination of years of hard work by our friends and partners in the conservation and sportsmen communities, the Forest Service and tens of thousands of regular folks who spoke up in defense of protecting our legacy and the beautiful landscape and habitat the Wyoming Range provides,” he said.

Time will tell if this cohort of citizens stand to play a role in defeating the proposed constitutional amendment in Wyoming. The amendment will start wending its way through the legislature when the 2017 session begins January 10. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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