Wyoming needs to put $95 million into its trust fund for natural resources and wildlife, Gov. Matt Mead says, but he and lawmakers have no plan on where to find the money.
Mead’s asked the Legislature for the funds in his supplemental budget proposal that he and lawmakers begin debating when the 2015 lawmaking session begins Jan. 13. Discussion about the trust could be the most significant debate on the environmental front.
“I don’t care where the money comes from,” Mead said Friday while in Jackson to break ground on the Vertical Greenhouse. “It needs to be funded.”
A revenue forecast in January when the legislative session starts will reveal “the best pots of money” for bringing the $105-million trust to its full $200-million corpus. Interest would be distributed to conservation and wildlife projects, usually matched by private funds and other money.
Brainstorming where to find $95 million could be daunting, several legislators said last week. Whether lawmakers can agree on a source and convince a majority to tap it is uncertain, they say.
A committee couldn’t select a funding avenue last week, said its chairman, Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs).
“At the end of the day it was set [that] the committee needed more direction from the Legislature and governor and, quite frankly, we haven’t seen that yet,” he said.
“We all agree we need to fully fund it,” Hicks said of fellow members of the Select Natural Resource Funding Committee. “The question is ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’”
A fully funded trust could produce millions of dollars in interest annually for wildlife conservation. Some lawmakers like the fund because its dollars are usually matched with private money and other sources.
“There are 10 different alternatives about how to do this,” Hicks said. “There are implications of moving funds, diverting funds, what the ripple effect of that is, and the political reality of what’s acceptable.”
Also, “there’s significant resistance,” he said. “This needs to be one (of the) discussions with the leadership.”
Without a committee bill, finding $95 million could be a tall order. “I’m worried we’re not taking advantage of this opportunity,” Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta) said.
Several other lawmakers support funding the trust, despite the challenges.
“Why don’t we build this savings account up now and allow us to do the good work,” said Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River). He’s another member of the Select Natural Resource Funding Committee. “If you don’t gore somebody else’s ox, you’re going to be OK.”
Ruth Ann Petroff, Jackson’s Republican representative, said, “It’s time, and we have the money to do it.”
The state has $2 billion in its “rainy day account” and has recently funded projects such as a $259 million renovation of the Capitol Building and $100 million for the University of Wyoming College of Engineering.
Neighboring Rep. Albert Sommers of Pinedale agreed there is money available for the trust fund. “I think it’s a good way to promote wildlife and natural resources,” he said. “It helps landowners, it helps oil companies.”
Mead outlined wildlife’s role in the state in his budget message, calling a fund for wildlife conservation “a form of savings.”
“It helps keep our state the special place it has always been — the special place we want it to remain for future generations,” he wrote. “Wildlife is a boon to tourism. It is important for the hunting and fishing industry. It enhances our quality of life.”
The chances for a trust funding bill may be “slim,” Hicks said. Although his committee didn’t propose a trust funding avenue, it did advance a separate and routine conservation bill with money from the existing trust interest.
The bill would fund efforts that range from improving winter habitat and the watershed of Wagonhound Creek in Hot Springs County, to boosting beaver and wetland habitat at Bolton Creek southwest of Casper.
The “large projects” bill has included money in the past to buy conservation easements, and some funds are proposed for one in the Little Snake River area in this year’s proposal. The bill also would help fund another fishery project on the Little Snake River and a continuing Wyoming Range mule deer study.
The University of Wyoming would get $131,000 to continue studies on fawn survival, if the bill passes. Fawn survival is key to stemming dwindling herd numbers. In lawmakers’ language, research would “determine the causes of loss or lack of retention of neonatal and juvenile deer.”
Legislators also will consider allowing residents to collect road-killed wildlife, whether to launch nuclear tourism and investigate dam construction at several sites. (See “Wyoming dam construction plans advance” — December 9, 2014.)
Nuclear tourism would center on an abandoned missile silo in the southeast, Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) said. She climbed down into one.
“It was really exciting,” she said, recalling the Cold War. “I was really young but we did do duck-and-cover drills.”
She supports the least expensive option for beginning a tourism site that would be operated by the state parks department. There’s also a parks bill pending that would free some money now earmarked for construction to be used for the department’s operations, she said.
“They don’t want to increase entrance fees,” Halverson said. “We’re going to let them open up the coffee can a little bit.”
Halverson would like the state to continue to investigate the takeover of some federal lands that aren’t national parks. Agencies like the U.S. Forest Service are strapped for cash and aren’t doing a good job, she said.
She pointed to beetle-killed forests she thinks should be logged. Instead, the government just conducts controlled burns, she charged.
“Animals can’t live up there,” Halverson said. “If the federal government can’t do it I’d like the states to do it.”
Mead, industry execs dine, mull energy complex
The governor wants the Legislature to start another fund, this one to advance planning for a significant industrial park, location to be determined. A Laramie senator said industry leaders invited to dine with him and Mead to discuss an industrial park have reacted favorably.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Democrat, said he joined the governor and industry leaders “from major corporations around the country” to see whether the idea for an industrial park held promise. The reaction was positive, he said.
“I attended all of those dinners with the governor,” Rothfuss said. “It was well-received,” he said of the idea. “Industry thought there was a good need for such a thing and there was a good possibility.”
Wyoming leaders are looking for a site that would take advantage of the state’s natural resources – from coal to oil, natural gas, water and trona — to build an industrial park. Factories and plants in the park would convert those resources to products – making electricity from gas, for example — and add value to raw products before export.
In Rock Springs, for example, Simplot is building a $350-million plant to make ammonia from natural gas and electricity. Ammonia will be used at a fertilizer plant next door, along with phosphate from Utah. Simplot will ship some of its ammonia to Idaho.
China is advancing coal chemistry, said Rep. Freeman who traveled there last summer to visit two model industrial centers. “They’re finding different ways to use coal in an environmentally friendly way,” he said. In Canada, where they mine tar sands for energy at the Heartland industrial complex “they (also) take the tar out and make asphalt shingles,” he said.
Wyoming could do similar things, said Rothfuss, a member of the Select Committee on the Wyoming Value Added Energy and Industrial Plan.
“Since we have all these natural resources, if we could put together some industrial complex that would add value in some way, we could end up getting a lot more revenue,” he said.
Dinner discussion with the governor centered on questions like “would this work, what are the barriers, what would be the best practices, would this be attractive to industry,” Rothfuss said. “I think it was a very positive reception.”
Mead described such a complex in his supplemental budget outline, without specifying how much he thinks is needed to kick off planning. He did ask the Legislature to take up the matter.
“Such parks would allow companies to cluster, benefit from synergies, develop technologies, and profitably produce cutting-edge products from Wyoming’s abundant resources,” he wrote.
A complex would need an anchor tenant, “to put a project in play that would draw other industry,” Rothfuss said. The next goal would be to shorten the permitting process.
“There’s no desire to lower the bar,” he said regarding environmental regulations. “It’s not like we’re trying to diminish the high standards we have.”
The goal is to consolidate environmental reviews, “taking some of that time up-front as part of the design phase of this process,” he said.
A “resonant theme,” during discussions with industry leaders he said, was access. That includes railways, highways and airports, making site selection critical.
“We need to make sure we’ve got first-rate air service,” he said. Even a 3-hour drive from an airport, “that’s too far.”
Rock Springs, Green River — “That’s one of the areas you would consider,” Rothfuss said. Southeast Wyoming, Cheyenne, too. “The Gillette area, Campbell County, is another place.”
Workforce capacity is another topic; “How many people do we have that could do these types of jobs somewhere,” he said. “We don’t have nearly enough to quickly spin up one of these endeavors.”
Workers would have to move in. “Rock Springs can actually be drawing from the Salt Lake City and Utah workforce,” he said. A site in the southeast would attract workers from the Rockies’ front range down into Colorado.
The state should start a planning fund now, as the governor wants.
“At some point we’re going to need to hire a program director for this,” Rothfuss said. “I think it’s probably time to do that this session.”
Halverson said she’s seen maps of one site that’s near water and not in a core sage grouse area. “On a map, it looks ideal,” she said.
Freeman likes southwest Wyoming, where the Green River flows and Wyoming has unappropriated rights. “I think that’s our ace in the hole,” he said.
Read these related WyoFile stories:
Wildfires could bankrupt states if they acquired federal tracts, August 2014
Wyoming stashes $793M in savings, projects $4.4M shortfall, December 2014
Who should pay for Wyoming’s wildlife?, November 2014