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Large Crowds Turn Out To Protest Proposed Public Land Takeover

Melodie Edwards

The idea of turning public lands over to the state has raised the hackles of a very diverse group of people. At a recent anti-land transfer rally in Casper, hundreds of hunters and outfitters crowded together with environmentalists and bird watchers. Then on Wednesday, people turned out in droves at a Federal Natural Resources Management Committee meeting in Riverton too.

“They kept bringing in chairs,” said Dan Smitherman, the Wyoming representative for the Wilderness Society. “In fact, there was still standing room only when they got down to business.”

In recent years, lawmakers have proposed five different bills, one of which passed, allowing the state to take over management of Wyoming's abundant federal lands: it's National Forests, Parks and Bureau of Land Management areas. Now, legislators are looking at yet another bill, this time proposing to amend the state constitution to allow public land takeovers.

Smitherman said it’s surprising so many people showed up to the meeting since the proposed constitutional amendment was tacked onto the agenda at the last minute.

“We became aware of this draft constitutional amendment oh, probably seven or eight days ago,” he said. “It just kind of popped up on the radar.”

Originally, legislators were only going to look at a new report they'd commissioned for $75,000 dollars looking at the feasibility of such public land transfers. And the committee did discuss that report conducted by Y2 Consultants from Jackson.

“I think we did come to a concurrence that there was some stuff in that report that was pretty sage advice,” said Baggs Senator Larry Hicks, who sits on the committee. He said the report’s conclusion is that a land takeover might not be a good idea for Wyoming in tight economic times. “And one [piece of advice] was that it's not in the best interest of Wyoming to try to assume management of those lands on a broad scale.”

The report also said that if Wyoming took over public lands, they'd still have to implement all the same federal laws and take over defending those laws in court.

“We'd just become a middle man,” said Hicks.

The report advised the state to try co-managing public lands instead using one of the many collaborative programs already available, like the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative that helps locals turn their concerns in legislation. But Hicks says the fact that such programs are necessary is a sign that federal management isn't allowing for enough local input in the first place.

“A lot of the Western states want the transfer of these lands, it's because the current model is not working for everybody.”

And Hicks says several of those states are working with the American Lands Council, a Utah group trying to find a legal way to takeover public lands. That’ll be tricky, though, according to a committee of Western attorney generals who released a report last month saying the constitutional laws protecting public lands into perpetuity are foolproof.

Hicks says, that's won't deter states from trying though, and Wyoming needs to prepare itself. He says the proposed amendment would allow the sale or swapping of lands, but only as long as there is no net loss in value or size of those lands.

“It could be a Supreme Court decision that comes down and says, under the equal footing doctrine, the federal government must transfer those lands to the states. So whether we pass the constitutional amendment or not,” said Hicks. “It's important to the people of Wyoming that we have a discussion of what that may look like and what the people of Wyoming want now to guarantee those opportunities in the future.”

The equal footing doctrine could be used to prove that western states should have the same proportion of public lands as more densely populated Eastern and Midwestern states. Wyoming is 54 percent public lands. As an example, Kansas is less than one percent. Hicks says the goal of the amendment is to make sure Wyomingites never lose access to their public lands.

But Wyoming Outdoor Council's Stephanie Kessler says a constitutional amendment is going overboard.

“We have tools now at hand to improve some of the issues that have been identified with federal lands management,” said Kessler “And we need to invest in those first before taking what we think is an extreme step and unnecessary with the constitution amendment.”

The Federal Natural Resources Management Committee plans to meet again to continue the discussion on the proposed constitutional amendment on December 14 in Cheyenne. 

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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