We’re all getting snookered.
I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before, at least in print. I never particularly wanted to, but it fits what’s happening to Wyoming residents who are being sold a bill of goods by state legislators whose ultimate goal is to sell off our public lands to developers.
Fortunately, the law isn’t on their side. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the public can keep powerful people determined to get their way from accomplishing their goals.
The energy industry, ranchers and many Western state officials have long wanted to get their hands on public lands owned and managed by the federal government. In 1932 the feds were willing to transfer surface rights to unappropriated lands to the states, but the states couldn’t afford to manage public lands during the Great Depression.
Someone had to, though, so the federal government created the Bureau of Land Management. States soon began complaining about the BLM’s policies. It wasn’t long before Western states renewed their demand for ownership of federal lands.
Fast-forward to 1976, when Congress kept control of its public lands through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Wyoming was one of 13 states to join a movement known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” which lacked political clout to pull off its brazen takeover plan. It fizzled out during President Reagan’s second term, even though he supported the movement.
But the Sagebrush Rebellion’s spirit lives on, and proponents of turning over ownership of public lands to Western states — so they can be sold to energy companies and agricultural interests to boost state revenues — are stronger than ever.
They’re determined to use whatever subterfuge it takes to win. That includes hiding their real intention to “drill baby drill” on public lands. With Republicans controlling Congress and many state legislatures, including eternally red Wyoming, supporters have their best shot at victory on this monumentally important issue in many years.
All they have to do is ignore case law, public opinion and clear-cut fiscal arguments against their proposal and convince voters the lands would be better off in the hands of the states.
Nationally, the biggest backers of this land grab have been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the energy industry and mega-rich conservative donors.
In Wyoming, these forces have all influenced most Republican legislators to self-righteously demand the “return” of public lands to the state, even in the face of legal precedence that such a transfer is unconstitutional.
The notion these public lands actually belong to the states is emblematic of the strategy used by right-wing Republicans about many issues: say something loud and long enough and many people accept it as the truth, without question.
ALEC has pushed states to pass its model legislation to “take back” public lands. It’s a front group for conservative corporations that want to extract our minerals and profit at the expense of the public’s enjoyment of these lands through tourism, hiking, camping, hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.
Republican State Rep. Ken Ivory of Utah has used ALEC conferences to promote his “American Lands Council.” In 2012, Ivory traveled to Wyoming to testify at a legislative committee meeting, inspiring a House bill creating a task force to determine how much revenue the state is losing because of federal lands management.
But ALEC has a big credibility problem — the public is on to its promotion of unpopular and potentially unconstitutional legislation, such as “stand your ground” laws that provide a legal defense for anyone who kills a person if he believes his life is in danger.
So another group had to take over the reins. Supporters came up with the deceptively named “Environmental Policy Alliance,” which shares its EPA acronym with the federal regulator of clean air and water, the much-maligned Environmental Protection Agency.
This new EPA was founded by Richard Berman, who runs a public relations firm infamous for taking on environmentalists, animal rights groups, labor unions and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving. CBS’s “60 Minutes” dubbed him “Dr. Evil.” The organization’s website is devoted to projects like “EPA Facts” and “Green Decoys,” which “expose” environmental groups and their funding. A recent Environmental Policy Alliance post claimed a link between the Kremlin and an environmental donor.
The P.R. guru advises the big players in oil and gas, including Anadarko Petroleum, Halliburton and ExxonMobil. The New York Times obtained a secretly recorded tape of Berman speaking at a June 2014 meeting of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), a Denver-based trade organization. The newspaper reported he admitted his firm uses nonprofit organizations to hide donors’ identities.
He pitched hiring his company to wage an “endless war” against environmentalists. Berman told executives they “must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups” opposed to fracking.
Expect a steady campaign of this rancid rhetoric from the phony EPA — Environmental Policy Alliance. It’s working one state at a time to get private control of public lands, and millions of acres in Wyoming are high on its list.
The Wyoming Legislature has joined these public land exploiters. It passed Senate File 56, which will spend $75,000 to study whether the state could effectively manage public lands if the federal government relinquishes that responsibility. But that’s not how SF 56 began — as drafted, the bill stated the federal government would transfer the title of specified federal land within our borders to the state.
When Wyoming sportsmen and conservationists loudly objected, noting it could result in the state selling treasured public lands, its sponsors quickly backpedaled. Senate Majority Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who guided the bill through the Senate, said it was simply a feasibility study, not a lands transfer.
Meanwhile, House Bill 209, sponsored by Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton), sailed through the lower chamber. The bill proclaimed the transfer will be completed and Miller talked about suing the feds. HB 209 also spelled out how any money from the sale of public lands would be distributed.
Bebout — who declared it was never the state’s intention to obtain title to federal lands, much less sell them — co-sponsored Miller’s bill in the Senate. But HB 209 was assigned to the Senate Journal Committee, where it stayed until it officially died.
The study, though, is very much alive, and it could help propel Berman and his cronies to victory. They’re already winning the P.R. game here — most of the media just repeats the claim these lands must be “returned” to the state.
Here’s where the snookering comes into play. In general, the public has no idea the legal case to transfer the land is incredibly flawed and has virtually no chance of winning on its merits. The only way the supporters’ scheme could work is if a misinformed public rallies around it.
A 2012 memo from Wyoming Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah Williamson to the state’s natural resource policy adviser details why any effort to challenge the feds’ public land rights within our borders would likely fail.
What impact would Utah’s attempt to take over federal lands have in Wyoming? Utah’s law, Williamson wrote, is based on the premise that under its statehood act, the feds are required to give 5 percent of the proceeds from land sales to the state. However, it does not mandate the federal government sell its public lands.
In fact, Wyoming, Utah and five other states seeking federal lands were all required to disclaim their rights to these lands upon joining the United States. Wyoming’s Constitution states, “The people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.”
“Forever disclaim” — that sounds clear to me, and apparently to the courts, which since the mid-19th century ruled against the proposition public lands must be turned over to the states.
If the public unites against this blatant land grab, the would-be perpetrators won’t win. We’re tired of being snookered by fat cats, and we’re not going to take it any more.
Or words to that effect.
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