Results from a recent poll reveal people don’t want their public lands sold. Most Westerners, including a majority of Wyomingites, want to maintain and protect federal land in their home states, according to Colorado College’s Conservation in the West poll, the results of which were released last week.
In Wyoming, 54 percent of respondents said they oppose giving state governments control over federal public land. Seventy-two percent oppose selling significant holdings of public lands, such as national forests, to reduce budget deficits.
The survey polled 400 registered voters in Wyoming using both land lines and cell phones. Those surveyed reflected the political demographics of the state.
The survey results didn’t surprise Dubois resident Nick Dobric, the Wyoming field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a former hunting guide. In Wyoming, more than 1,000 sportsmen have signed the Sportsmen Access Petition opposing public land sales, he said.
Public land management is far from perfect, in Dobric’s opinion, but transferring management to the states, which have different and more prohibitive recreation rules, and lack adequate management funds, is not a solution. Sportsmen depend on these lands.
It’s why Jeff Muratore lives in Wyoming. Muratore moved to Casper when he was 5 years old. Fifty-three years later it’s still home. “Absolutely it’s the outdoors and hunting on public land,” he said of what has kept him in Wyoming.
Most of the people he knows share his opinion that federal lands should not be transferred to state control. “State lands are managed to maximize profits…. Recreation is literally on the bottom of the list of important use,” he said. “That is not my idea of how public lands should be managed.”
As more people understand what selling, or even transferring ownership means, more people are opposing it, despite widespread distrust of the federal government in the state, Muratore said.
“Access to public land is a way of life in Wyoming,” he said. “Without the access to public lands, I don’t think I would live in Wyoming.”
Muratore said he believes that advocacy for federal land transfers by a select few politicians demonstrates how out of touch some officials are with their constituents. He believes such behavior is causing a rift between a traditionally conservative demographic — sportsmen — and conservative elected officials.
“There is a definite disconnect,” Muratore said. “They are not listening to us.”
It is a rare issue that is bringing together people from both parties, said Buzz Hettick, a forester and chairman with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who has lived in Laramie for about 15 years after growing up in Montana. “It doesn’t matter if they are a Republican or a Democrat, they don’t want to lose their public land,” he said.
To instill sportsmen values and traditions in the next generation there have to be places to hunt. Hettick said he wishes more people opposed federal land transfers, and said perhaps more would if they understood they won’t be able to do the things they love if state’s take over management or ownership.
“When you look at what public lands really do for the people of Wyoming and the West, it’s the huge economy based around public lands,” he said. “People live here for a reason. They put businesses here for a reason. It’s no accident I live in Wyoming. I want to live somewhere where I can throw 20 bucks of gas in my truck and go hunting or fishing, or whatever other outdoor activity I like.”
Rob Hendry, a Natrona County Commissioner and third generation Wyoming rancher, disagrees. He said he thought the number of people opposed to land transfers in the state seemed high.
He is a public land user and favors transfer of control of federal land to the states.
“State control means the management would be closer to the ground, closer to where the land is,” he said.
He said he believes state-owned lands are still public lands, so people wouldn’t lose access, but the states would have the opportunity to increase energy development. He’d like to see the state take advantage of increased coal, oil and gas extraction. He’d like recreation opportunities to remain the same, allowing for hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking.
“People have, and would still have, the right to come out here,” he said.
As a rancher who uses federal lands for grazing, Hendry said he’s seen how bureaucracy hinders use. In a year where the grass is green and plentiful, he still has to move his animals on a prescribed date. There is no flexibility depending on conditions.
“It’s all done in Washington D.C.,” he said. “That gives a terrible amount of frustration.”
Hendry does fall in line with most other Wyomingites, according to the survey, who oppose selling public lands. Selling public land would lockout sportsmen and he doesn’t think the land would fetch enough money to make the loss of access worth it.
Speaking at a press conference on the poll, former Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, acknowledged that the attitudes reflected in the survey are sometimes overshadowed by vocal groups that he described as “far out of step with most folks living in the West.”
Most westerners are more concerned with drought, water, scarcity, dependence on foreign oil and the outdoor recreation economy, than trying to gain state control of federal lands, according to Salazar.
Many Western states attract businesses and visitors with their public land access.
The poll also showed that 72 percent of people in Wyoming favor future presidents having the ability to designate new national monuments. According to the survey, 79 percent of Wyoming residents said public issues involving public lands, water and wildlife are important factors in determining who they will vote for this year.
“These are the crown jewels that make the American West so attractive,” Salazar said.