A bill proposing an amendment to the Wyoming Constitution if federal lands are transferred to the state seeks to preserve acreage, access and multiple use, according to a draft posted online.
But the draft bill is a red herring, one critic said. “I don’t think it’s worth the paper it’s written on,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, an organization with members across the West.
Whatever promises the legislation makes, even via constitutional language, could be reversed, Tawney said. Placating hunters about access diverts attention from the core issue of how the lands would be managed by the state, he said. State management would shortchange wildlife and recreation and favor development, he said.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and other conservation organizations drew hundreds to a rally in Casper on Saturday. Wyoming Wildlife Federation president Shane Cross said federal and state constitutions essentially make state ownership without congressional approval possible only through secession
Lawmakers have said the draft bill would allay fears and dismiss key arguments made by those opposed to state control of federal property. Legislators on the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee are scheduled to meet in Riverton on Wednesday to consider the draft legislation and hear public comment. The committee will also review a lengthy study it commissioned, which suggests that state management of lands in Wyoming that are now federal is not feasible.
The bill proposes a joint resolution calling for an election to amend the Wyoming Constitution. The amendment would require all federal property granted to Wyoming after Jan. 1, 2019 “be managed for multiple use and sustained yield, including public access for hunting, fishing and other recreation, as prescribed by the legislature.”
A constitutional amendment would allow the state to exchange newly acquired Federal lands for other property but without any significant loss of acreage or value. Any exchange of newly acquired federal property “shall maintain or increase public access to those lands,” the draft bill states.
Tawney said the issue has put pressure on elected officials. “I think it’s being used to defuse some angst,” he said of the bill.
“If they did pass this, what stops the state in a year, five years a decade from now, going back and saying ‘Oh we do need to sell some of these lands,’ and changing the state constitution again, Tawney said.
If lawmakers are truly interested in hunters and access, they should start with their own property, he said. For example, the controversial proposed Bonander state land exchange near Douglas. The swap would see Wyoming trade 1,000 acres of state land for only 300 acres of private land with a corresponding loss of access to another 3,000 acres of public land, he said.
Diverse support for his cause was evident at Saturday’s rally, Tawney said. The crowd included horsemen, hunters, fishermen, runners and more.
“All came together to make their voices heard,” he said. “Anyone that uses our public lands needs to stay vigilant — these folks aren’t going away.”
The highly charged issue of state ownership or management seems fundamentally flawed because of constitutional and other legal roadblocks. A 357-page study commissioned by the Legislature — also on Wednesday’s agenda — outlined numerous problems with Wyoming potentially managing federal holdings.
The study does not consider state ownership, just management. Committee member, Sen. Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton) said last week he considers a transfer “remote.”
That hasn’t stopped either side from debate and action. The federal government — and the American public — owns 48 percent of Wyoming, some 30 million acres. But some residents who make their livelihoods off of the federal estate complain about regulations and restrictions curtailing activities there.
Committee chairwoman Norine Kasperik (R, HD-32, Gillette) said last week she expects considerable public interest at Wednesday’s meeting, to be held at Central Wyoming College. Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter seeks to boost participation.
“This is an attempted land grab,” Connie Wilbert, chapter director, said in an email Monday. “A small group of legislators are attempting to wrest control of our treasured public lands.”