Wyoming joined its western sagebrush-rebel cousins this week in advancing a bill that would study and demand the transfer of federal lands to the state.
The House on Thursday introduced its transfer bill and assigned it to the Judiciary Committee. Meantime the Senate has amended its transfer bill so that a $100,000 study investigates only management of certain federal property.
House Bill 209 states that “on or before December 31, 2017, the United States shall … extinguish title to all public lands; and (t)ransfer title to public lands to the state of Wyoming.” The bill would exclude national parks, wilderness areas, national monuments, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway and some other properties.
The bill would create a select committee that would study the issue, supported by $25,000 from the General Fund. A preliminary report would be due by June 30, 2016, proposed legislation by Oct. 2 that year and a final report and bill by Jan. 2, 2017.
The 14-page House bill offers many reasons why Wyoming should own land that’s now managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. “The legislature finds that federal funding and the resulting capacity for responsible management of federal public lands are in serious jeopardy while critical threats such as beetle kills, invasive species, watershed degradation, access restrictions and catastrophic wildfires continue to escalate,” the bill states.
It also makes a case that Wyoming was shortchanged at statehood when the federal government kept ownership of vast tracts of property. Of Wyoming’s roughly 98,000 square miles, more than 48 percent is public land owned by the federal government.
But the House bill, and the Senate measure, may be so much sound and fury, one critic said. That’s because Wyoming cannot make the federal government give up its property as the transfer bill demands.
“To my knowledge there is no mechanism to compel the federal government to hand over federal public lands, either in title or management, to the state,” said Catherine Thagard, coordinator for Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance. She made her comments in an email. “As we have seen in our neighboring state of Utah, a law calling for the federal government to do so does not change that fact.”
One of the sponsors of the House bill, Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) offered some of her thinking before the legislative session started. She’s been involved with the issue for two years, she said, and followed meetings of the American Lands Council, which promotes the idea of western states taking over federal land.
“Given that the Forest Service budget is being slashed, I think the time is right for management with the state — a memorandum with the state,” she said. A complete transfer is her preference. “So far, I’m leaning to the state taking ownership.”
Halverson discounted fears that a transfer would lead to the sale of what’s now prime public recreational and hunting lands. Numerous critics have said such an eventuality is inevitable.
Beetle-killed conifers and controlled burns by the Forest Service irk Halverson, she said. Architects and builders would love to have beetle-killed timber logged from national forests, she said, but instead timber is destroyed.
“That’s all they do — controlled burns,” she said. Parts of her nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest are “dead,” she said. “Animals can’t live up there.”
Nine groups that are members of the Wyoming Sportsman’s Alliance unanimously agree the two bills are bad, Thagard said. The groups have about 50,000 members in the state, she said.
The bills “would move our state closer to the fire sale of federal public lands that are the backbone of our hunting and fishing tradition in Wyoming and will result in loss of access for thousands of sportsmen around the state,” Thagard said in a statement. “With all that we stand to lose, sportsmen must remind our elected officials that our public lands are not theirs to dispose of for short-term financial gain.”
The groups are Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Wyoming Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Wyoming chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen, Yellowstone Country Bear Hunter Association, Muley Fanatics Foundation, Bowhunters of Wyoming and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
In addition to Halverson, co-sponsors of the House bill are Reps. David Miller (R-Riverton), Kermit Brown (R-Laramie), Scott Clem (R-Gillette), Mike Greear (R-Worland), Kendell Kroeker (R-Evansville), Bunky Loucks (R-Casper) and Sens. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), Stan Cooper (R-Kemmerer), Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and Curt Meier (R-LaGrange).