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Land Transfer Amendment Dies In Wyoming Legislature

Melodie Edwards

A bill drafted for the legislature that proposed to revise Wyoming's constitution to allow the state to take over management of federal lands, has died. The idea was intensely controversial and today Senator Eli Bebout withdrew the legislation. 

Droves of hunters, anglers and hikers turned out for anti-land transfer rallies in recent months wearing stickers that read, “Keep It Public, Wyoming!” 

But in early January, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation wrote a letterto the Select Committee on Federal Natural Resources, asking them not to introduce a constitutional amendment that they felt had appeared out of nowhere.

“They said they wanted to bolster that management scheme to protect access,” said Shane Cross, the group's board chair. “And from our organization's perspective that was putting the cart before the horse.”

Cross says they didn't see why the state should go rewriting the constitution to protect access to public lands before the federal government even agreed to give away its public lands.

In the letter, the group suggested legislators consider alternatives. Cross says, that's when Senator Larry Hicks replied, okay, I challenge you to come up with some ideas.

So they got to work.

“And one thing that the National Wildlife found was a bill in Colorado that was passed in 2015 to create resource management plans to local governments and strengthen their participation in the federal agency decision making process.”

WWF invited Colorado Senator Kerry Donovan to present her state's public land transfer alternative to Wyoming's legislators at an impromptu meeting a couple weeks ago. At the meeting, Donovan explained why their bill helped soften the anger of many Coloradoans toward the feds.

“I think this bill went a long ways to alleviate that local frustration that we're hearing because now we have a very proactive approach instead of feeling like we're reactionary or having things done TO us,” said Donovan.

She said it was more proactive because her state gave locals more power to negotiate with the government.

“In order to have a seat at the table in these complicated land use discussions, you have to have technical knowledge and technical expertise,” said Donovan. “Now, very often, small local communities and rural communities don't have the staffing capability to wade into these technical land use discussions, but the state does.”

So, Colorado’s law now pays for that skilled staff to help counties get the training, equipment and data they need to work with National Forests, BLM and other agencies. Donovan says it gave locals a knowledgeable voice on decisions that affected them like grazing restrictions caused by sage grouse protections or energy development in their backyard.

But here's the funny thing: Wyoming adopted an almost identical program years ago, back the early 2000's. It's called the Federal Natural Resource Policy Account or FNRPA.

“It’s been a model in the West,” said Wyoming County Commissioners Association Director Pete Obermueller. “Lots of other states have looked at this model and tried to figure out how they could do it.

At the meeting with legislators, the Wildlife Federation argued that the best thing to do is expand FNRPA. Obermueller says the way both Colorado and Wyoming's programs work is to take advantage of the fact that, by law, the feds must include county governments in land decision making.

“That doesn't give counties a trump card if they end up not being able to coordinate as much as perhaps we would like. But the requirement is on the federal government to make the attempt,” said Obermueller.

Obermueller says, right now, FNRPA is underfunded with only about $1 million in the budget for it. But he says, even so, there are success stories. Like a project to help county commissioners compile data about the how the ups and downs of Wyoming’s economy effects their communities, data they otherwise would have to provide anecdotally from personal experience.

“So we partnered using some FNRPA resources with the University of Wyoming to provide a template that all counties can use to develop a sound, defensible socio-economic data source that can input into the federal land use planning process whenever necessary.”

But some legislators are still resistant to the idea of expanding FNRPA instead of passing a full blown public land transfer bill.

“You know, 67 percent of our minerals are federally owned and that’s the real issue for us in Wyoming,” said Speaker of the House, Steve Harshman at a recent press conference. “And somehow it’s gotten convoluted into an issue that we want to take people’s favorite hunting and fishing spot away.”

House Majority Floor Leader David Miller added, the goal is not to take over National Parks or wilderness areas, just mineral rich areas like BLM lands.

“This isn’t about taking away lands from recreation,” said Miller. “In fact, there’s a huge misconception.”

But there wasn't enough legislators who agreed with Miller and Harshman to vote through such a controversial bill. In order for the measure to pass, it required two-thirds support in the Senate and House. In recent days, lawmakers who previously supported the measure backed away from it leading to Senator Bebout's action. It's assumed that the legislation is dead for the reminder of the session.

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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