Opponents of a proposed $100,000 study on the impact of the state of Wyoming potentially taking over management of federal lands are skeptical about the intent of the plan.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion about how do you manage something that you don’t own,” said Steve Kilpatrick of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, who noted Utah spent $500,000 on a similar study.
Senate File 56, sponsored by the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, was passed 5-0 by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday evening. Wyoming is one of several Western states examining what might happen in the unlikely event the feds agree to let the state manage U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land within its borders.
“In our opinion, this is Sagebrush Rebellion stuff that’s been tried over and over,” said Kim Floyd, director of the Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen, referring to the failed attempt by several Western states in the 1980s to take over federal land. “One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for a study that other states are conducting right now.”
On Friday, SF 56 was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee to consider the measure’s $100,000 price tag. The bill will then be voted on by the full Senate.
In addition to looking at the cost of the plan, SF 56 includes a “pledge” to maintain public access to the lands for hunting, fishing and recreation, and an economic analysis to identify sources of revenue to pay for the administration and maintenance of the land.
During the committee’s debate, Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) clarified the bill only deals with potential state management of federal public lands in Wyoming, and not ownership.
“I think it’s a tough sell,” he said of any effort to have the feds give Wyoming the title to public lands. “Even though I think legally we’ve got grounds to do it, Congress isn’t going to just give them back to us.”
It is worth noting that there’s nothing factually correct about suggesting that the feds “took” these lands from the states and now we want them “back”. In fact, the feds did give each state millions of acres of lands – Wyoming received 4.3 million acres when it became a state. Under the state’s management, those lands have been sold or privatized, overgrazed and leased below market value, leased to mineral companies for energy development without conditions to protect the economic viability of working ranches, water quality or wildlife habitat, exchanged unfairly, clearcut, and are now the site of hundreds of abandoned drilling wells that are a blight on the land.
Several organizations, including the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, told the committee they strongly support the proposed study. But the majority of conservation and sportsmen’s groups in Wyoming consider SF 56 to be a land grab by the state, and have rallied in opposition.
Floyd said while the panel did some necessary “wordsmithing” to clarify portions of the bill, his membership is still concerned about the state’s poor management efforts on its own trust lands.
“On state lands, we can’t camp and we can’t light a fire,” he noted.
After the meeting, Floyd said, “There’s a lot of oil and gas development [on state trust lands]. Does that mean if the state takes over managing Forest Service lands, there’s going to be an oil rig on every hill?”
“We need to look at the big picture and see what we can handle and what we can’t,” said Sen. Gerald Geis (R-Cody), a member of the committee. “And that’s what this study will do.”
“I think what they’re going to find is that it’s too expensive for our state to manage federal lands,” Floyd predicted.
In response to a question about whether Wyoming could learn just as much by reading other states’ studies of the issue, Bebout said Utah and Nevada were looking at acquiring the lands. “They weren’t talking about the analysis of managing as we are; it’s like [they] are going to get the lands back [by] buying and controlling them or trying to win them in court.”
One thing he already knows even without a study, Bebout added, is that “Wyoming does a lot of things better, cheaper and quicker.”
Several groups still doubted Wyoming wouldn’t eventually seek ownership of the federal lands it wants to manage.
“There’s a lot of fear out there, at least among the hunters and anglers I communicate with, about the transfer of federal public lands into state ownership,” said Neil Thagard, Western Outreach Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Can the state afford to do it? If the state cannot afford to do it, what happens to these lands, and what happens to my access to hunting and fishing areas?”
Kilpatrick said the working group concept of different interests collaborating and resolving environmental and wildlife problems has been used successfully in Wyoming projects, including the Thunder Basin Grassland Prairie Ecosystem Association, which is looking at 10.8 million acres over five counties. Its goal is to improve sage grouse habitat and numbers in order to alleviate the need for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird as an endangered species, which is seen as a killer of energy development in much of the state.
He said he would prefer to use such working groups instead of conducting expensive studies on land use management. “That’s how I’d like to see this done — talking together on a community basis and working things out,” Kilpatrick said.
However, Bebout said working groups have spent much time arriving at collaborative solutions, “only to find out that when they see the preferred [federal] alternative, it’s nothing they’ve talked about or agreed upon.”
“Let’s see what the costs and the benefits are,” said Bebout. “You could argue all day long that [state management] is going to be better, but let’s find out…. Let’s be cautious about how we move forward, but it’s a good idea to look at it. If we don’t, I think we’re doing a real injustice relative to how we properly utilize these lands.”
Catherine Thagard of the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance said the nine organizations under the WYSA banner unanimously voted to not support SF 56 as written.
A spokesman for one of those groups, the Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the issue involves more than just the federal lands in Wyoming.
“A lot of our guys like to hunt in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, all over the place on federal lands,” Buzz Hettick related. “On this whole transfer thing, Wyoming might do a pretty good job, but there’s no guarantee Montana might not dispose of the lands as well…. As hunters and anglers, we just cannot afford to lose an acre, and I don’t think the wildlife can either…or we’ll have nowhere else to go.”
Richard Garrett, energy policy analyst and legislative advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, told the panel, “It is critical that the study process be open.”
“I have tried to resist, and I hope the people who do the study will resist, a predicted outcome,” he said. “The study should be unbiased and thorough.”