UPDATE Dec. 2 — The Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners voted 5-0 Thursday to reject the exchange proposal, Bridget Hill, director of the Office of State Lands and Investments said in an email.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers applauded the vote.
“We’re celebrating a win for public access here in Wyoming,” said BHA Wyoming Chapter Chairman Buzz Hettick. “Today’s vote testifies to the power of a small group of committed citizens to effect long-lasting, impactful, positive change. As a result, we can look forward to continued public access to hunt, hike and otherwise enjoy a remarkable Wyoming landscape.”
Critics of an eastern Wyoming land exchange are unconvinced a proposed new access easement would resolve worries about losing hundreds of acres of public property.
The proposed Bonander land exchange also raises deep questions about how Wyoming would manage federal lands should they ever be transferred to the state, critic Jeff Muratore said. A board member of the Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, he has criticized the exchange while representing the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance.
“We don’t even know if you can access through that easement, without actually going up there,” Muratore said Monday. “There are some pretty rugged rocks and formations in that country.”
The state should at least hold another period of public comment before it takes action as scheduled on Dec. 1, Muratore said. Bridget Hill, director of the Office of State Lands and Investments has recommended that the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners approve the controversial swap, with the proposed new easement. “That’s not something our process typically would approve,” Hill said in a telephone interview Monday about the possibility of another round of comment.
While Muratore is focused on the pending exchange, he agreed it is a harbinger of concerns over the potential transfer of federal lands in Wyoming to state control. That concept of transferring National Forest and Bureau of Land Management property is circulating across the West, creating sharp divisions.
“Obviously if the land board approves this transaction in the face of all the public opposition to it … it’s going to get a lot of people saying ‘Are these the people we want controlling public lands?’” Muratore said. “I think a lot of the public will lose faith in the state if this transaction goes through.”
Swapping 295 private acres for 1,040 state ones
Rick Bonander seeks to exchange 295 acres in the Black Hills in Crook County for 1,040 acres in the Laramie Peak area. The exchange parcels are of near equal value, according to appraisals, and a slight difference would be made up with a cash payment by Bonander.
Hunters and others worry the exchange would cut off access to more than 4,000 acres of public land in Albany County south of Douglas. Among the areas that would be more difficult to reach would be parts of the Medicine Bow National Forest and Elk Hunt Area 7.
By including a public easement as part of the deal, worries about access for hunters and others would be largely alleviated, Hill wrote in a report to the Board of Land Commissioners.
“A perpetual year-round access easement will provide access to the 3,131 acres of state and federal land that would otherwise be lost,” her recommendation states. “Although not alleviating every concern raised, such an easement appears to address the majority of the concerns related to public access.”
Hill’s office released the recommendation last week. Her agency also posted an update on the exchange proposal that outlines some of the contested issues and the reasoning behind her recommendation. The post includes maps showing the proposed easement.
State land management responsibilities
In recommending the land commissioners approve the swap, Hill wrote that she considered several objectives, as required by law. The school trust land the state would trade away is dedicated to generating money for K-12 education. Any evaluation should take into account short- and long-term revenue projections and portfolio diversification and appreciation, among other factors. She’s also bound to consider whether consolidation of ownership makes managing lands simpler.
“The proposed exchange is expected to benefit the State’s trust beneficiaries’ long-term objectives by transitioning the Board’s ownership from a lower appreciating market to a higher one, thereby increasing the value of the land asset at a greater rate than what is currently realized,” Hill wrote. “The proposed exchange consolidates state trust land into a larger, contiguous ownership block.”
Muratore said talk about appreciation is “pure speculation.” In fact, grazing revenues will decrease, along with public acreage, he claims.
Hill said the Crook County parcel has timber that could be sold, grazing potential and guided hunting, also. “We believe we have an opportunity for outfitting permits in that area,” she said. That would give the state three sources of revenue in Crook County where before it has only had one — grazing leases — around the Bonander ranch.
Hill also must consider what effect an exchange has on access and recreational opportunities — an element of the law that has dogged this particular swap. The proposed easement would satisfy that worry to some extent, she wrote.
Hill said she can’t place too much emphasis on recreation and access because of the law defining competing objectives for managing state property. “As much as I understand the love Wyoming has for outdoor recreation, the priorities we’ve been given place it in the bottom category.”
Bonander says swap is a win-win
For Rick Bonander, swap proponent, the exchange would be a win-win. He proposed the deal in an effort to consolidate isolated parts of his existing ranch, which he said are separated by state property.
“It blocks up four different pieces of my private property,” Bonander said Monday of the proposed exchange. “It makes it easier to manage my ranch.”
He disagrees that access to the Laramie Peak area south of Douglas would be lost. “The state land I’m trying to trade for is pretty much inaccessible,” Bonander said. Nevertheless, he agreed to granting an easement as part of the exchange.
“Is it practical?” Bonander asked of the proposed easement. “I don’t think so,” he said. In agreeing to an easement, “I’m trying to answer their concerns.”
The ranch owner agreed that hunting on public land is becoming more difficult. “Part of the reason I bought [the Laramie Peak area ranch] is to have good hunting for my family,” he said. He allows some public hunting access to the north part of his land, he said.
A dedicated hunter and former president of his local Ducks Unlimited chapter, Bonander said he is surprised that he’s being criticized. “All of a sudden I’m being attacked by groups that normally I’d be a member of,” he said. “I think they kinda needed a cause and I’m handy.”
Muratore said Bonander, and potentially other owners of large tracts of land in the state, seek to create private hunting reserves. “Someone wants to keep people out, so they’ll trade land with the state to accomplish their goal,” he said. “We’re concerned about a precedent.”
Breeding suspicions about federal land transfer
The proposed Bonander swap has some residents wondering how Wyoming would manage National Forest and BLM land should the state somehow gain ownership or management responsibility of those public lands. The transfer movement has generated deep divides, pitting conservationists, environmentalists, hunters, anglers, and recreationists against industry backers, some politicians and others who believe state management would benefit Wyoming. The federal government and the American people own 48 percent of Wyoming — some 30 million acres.
Federal land transfer opponents have said any transfer would necessarily require states to sell or develop property to fund management of newly acquired properties. In Wyoming, transfer supporters have therefore proposed that Wyoming voters pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing no net loss of acreage of access.
On Dec. 14 in Cheyenne a legislative committee is scheduled to discuss a draft bill proposing a statewide vote on the constitutional amendment. But even the provisions guaranteeing no loss of acreage or access do not satisfy Muratore.
“We still can’t say ‘no net loss’ will work,” he said. “Does that mean if the state decides to sell a quality piece of ground that might harbor a lot of animals [they could] replace it with something down on the prairie?”
Should the land commissioners — the top five elected state officials — vote for the Bonander swap, that would undermine support for Wyoming managing what’s now National Forest and BLM property. “People are going to be suspicious of how the state handles public lands,” Muratore said.
Another issue arises when considering Gov. Matt Mead’s recent formation of a recreation task force. Muratore said if new generations of Wyoming residents don’t have access to public land to hunt, conservation will wither. Therefore, the swap also runs counter to the governor’s recreation initiative, he said.
“Where is the real gain for the state trust in this transaction,” Muratore asked. “We don’t really see it. That has a lot of people very baffled.”