A Senate bill to create a $100,000 federal public lands study had no trouble breezing through the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee by an 8-1 vote Monday morning.
The bill originally said the study would focus on the transfer of federal lands to the state, but it was quickly amended in the Senate to limit its scope to the state’s potential cost of managing federal lands.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) said the bill was controversial in the Senate, where it ran into opposition from every sportsmen’s group in the state except one. On Monday no one from the public spoke against the proposal, though Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council asked whether the study will also examine mineral rights on federal land.
No one on the committee knew, but Chairman Tom Lockhart (R-Casper) said the panel will find out the answer.
Bebout, chaiman of the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, the bill’s sponsor, told the House panel Senate File 56 was intended to be a study that looked at the cost to the state if federal public lands in Wyoming were ever transferred to the management of the State Office of Lands and Investment (SOLI). The bill would require the study to be delivered to the select committee by November 2016.
The House passed HB 209 earlier this session, which would have Wyoming join several other Western states to demand the federal government return public lands to the respective states. The land was originally ceded to states, but the feds took over management when the states had trouble footing the bill.
HB 209 is now languishing in the Senate, where it has not been discussed by a committee. Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) told the House Minerals Committee that the measure doesn’t demand anything from the federal government.
Bebout said there was initially a lot of “misinformation” about SF 56.
“We never intended to do a transfer of federal lands to the state,” he said. “We just want to study the issue so we know how much management would cost if the federal government ever decides it does want the state to take control.
“The question is ‘can we do a better job of management for less money?'” Bebout added. “The outcome of the study hasn’t been predetermined, but I believe we can.”
He said Wyoming has wasted a lot of opportunities for increased minerals revenue in recent years because the federal permitting process for energy development is so slow.
Bebout said the bill contains a pledge that the state of Wyoming will retain public access to public lands for hunting, fishing, camping and other recreational opportunities.
Halverson, who is not a member of the committee, said she believes public access will actually improve if the state takes over management of federal public lands.
She added the state of Wyoming would have no incentive to sell any land it does acquire from the feds, because the state would only receive 5 percent of the net proceeds while the federal government would get 95 percent.
Bob Wharff, executive director of the Wyoming chapter of the Utah-based Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife organization, which promotes privatization, said his is the only sportsmen’s group that has endorsed SF 56.
Other organizations speaking in favor of the legislation included the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
Richard Garrett, policy analyst with the Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC), said there are “some cautions that we all share about this bill, most importantly that the study not be conducted in a biased way — if it’s not directed toward an outcome it will better inform all of us.”
The WOC spokesman added, “One of the first issues this committee should look at is if the federal agencies are willing to be managed — do they have the statutory authority to allow the state of Wyoming to manage [federal] public lands? After determining that, you could proceed with a study.”
Garrett said he will suggest an amendment to find the answer to that question be presented to the entire House when the bill hits the floor for debate.
Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said he didn’t vote for HB 209, but he became convinced SF 56 is needed. He pointed out 80 percent of the land in his county is under federal ownership.
“Every citizen in my district is affected by decisions made on those lands, whether it’s recreation or business development,” he said. “The safeguards we put in place are very, very important.”
Sommers offered an amendment to boost the appropriation for the study to $200,000, but he was its only supporter. The rest of the committee decided if more money is needed, the SOLI can come back and request it at next year’s budget session.
“I feel this bill has a lot of steam behind it,” Lockhart said.
Byrd said he believes the entire bill could be put off until next year, but he couldn’t sell the committee on delaying it. He said he still has some issues with the bill he will probably bring up on the House floor.
“The split estate, the costs, the addressing of water issues related to this — too many unanswered questions, especially with the mineral estate. I’d like it, Mr. Chairman, if you could somehow make me feel warm and fuzzy about this, maybe I could be a ‘yes’ vote,” Byrd said. “I like the idea but I’m not there.”
However, he was the only legislator on the nine-member committee who voted “no.”
“I guess I didn’t make you warm and fuzzy,” Lockhart said to laughter
Josh Coursey, president/CEO of Muley Fanatics in Green River, said in an interview he’s irritated that SF 56 has gained momentum in the House despite the fact other Western states have spent far more, only to conclude such management transfers are cost prohibitive for state management.
He said the notion federal ownership is infringing on state rights was addressed by the State Land and Investment Office last year when it was found to be unconstitutional.
“Why is this continuing to come up?” Coursey asked. “It seems to be a moot point and a poor use of time.”
Coursey said public lands belong “to the 330 million Americans that make this country the greatest nation on earth.”
“I can attest from my prior military service that I have multiple friends of whom I served with that consider our public lands just as much theirs as mine,” he added. “As a Wyoming native and resident, I consider myself a trustee of these lands for all Americans. I am sure those voices would have to be heard if such efforts gained serious momentum.”
Coursey said the potential loss of public land access that comes with state lands, the loss of multiple use management and the processes to ensure all interests are given consideration, and cost associated with administering federal lands, “makes this dialogue of potential possibility a notion that is nothing short of troubling.”