SESSION RECAP: On public lands, the action took place before the session began

March 21, 2017

Better Wyoming didn’t report on public lands issues this legislative session, not because we don’t care about public lands—in fact, they’re among the things we care about most. It was because the lion’s share of the action was finished before the session even started.

And there was no shortage of action. The announcement by new Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) in January to kill a controversial bill that would have laid the groundwork for transferring federal public lands to the state was the result of months of advocacy, organizing, and politicking. It was the culmination of a single act in the ongoing drama surrounding public land transfer, which is shaping up to be among the most crucial current issues in the American West.

A video of the second committee meeting on a public land transfer amendment showed the energized opposition to the amendment, as well as the arrogance of the lawmakers supporting it.

The stage is set

Go back to October 2016 (what seems like political light-years in the past). A consultancy group hired by the Wyoming State Legislature to investigate the plausibility of transferring federal public lands to the state released its definitive report. The conclusion: It’s an awful idea.

Hunters, anglers, and Wyoming citizens in general oppose transferring public land to the state, in large part because it would likely result in the state selling off what many consider their birthright and a major reason to live here in the first place. Without public land, there is no Wyoming hunting, fishing, or outdoors culture, business, or heritage.

When the October report came out against land transfer—for financial, bureaucratic, and a host of other reasons—a collective sigh of relief (and vindication) issued across Wyoming. People following the debate looked forward to a Nov. 9 meeting of the state legislature’s Select Committee on Federal Natural Resource Management, where they assumed lawmakers would discuss the report and its ramifications.

Instead, land transfer zealots in the legislature—of which there are a number, including Bebout—decided to throw the consultants’ report in the garbage and instead trot out their newest underhanded tactic: a proposed state constitutional amendment that, at a glance, appeared to protect public access in the event of land transfer, but really was meant to grease the wheels for the wildly unpopular act.

When word got around that the Nov. 9 meeting would serve as a debut for the land transfer amendment, people were not happy. More than one hundred citizens—from Chaco-wearing NOLS liberals to camo-clad backcountry hunting Republicans—packed the meeting room. The committee, however, ignored the mass opposition and passed the amendment anyway.

Building momentum against land transfer

The opposition at the Nov. 9 meeting did not emerge spontaneously. The fight over public lands has been simmering nationally for years, and last fall several factors came to a head in Wyoming to draw increased attention to the issue.

Most importantly, local and national groups concerned with public lands issues got organized. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wyoming Backcountry Horsemen, and others began to focus their attention on the land transfer threat, operating in the state individually and as part of a loose coalition called “Keep It Public, Wyoming.

Their cause saw a significant publicity boost in September when a proposed state land exchange that would have blocked thousands of acres of public access in the Laramie Peaks became a symbol for how poorly the state managed its own trust lands. What became known as the “Bonander Land Exchange” helped draw support for a public lands rally in Casper on Nov. 5, days before the amendment committee meeting. Meanwhile, groups like the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance attacked state legislators’ public lands voting records during the 2016 election season, pushing the issue to the forefront of campaigns.

Another committee meeting, further outrage

After being rebuffed by lawmakers at the Nov. 9 meeting, groups and citizens against land transfer became even more vocal. As the legislative session drew near and pressure mounted against the land transfer amendment, lawmakers sought to quell opposition by hosting another public meeting, this time in Cheyenne.

Once again, the room was packed with citizens prepared to speak out against the bill, but they were greeted with a surprise: The subcommittee hosting the meeting—former representative Tim Stubson (R-Casper), Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), and Rep. JoAnn Dayton (D-Rock Springs)—announced that they would not hear testimony about land transfer in general, but only about specific language in the proposed amendment.

The attendees were angered and momentarily stunned, having arrived by and large ready to speak against land transfer and the amendment, but not about the particularities of the legislation they opposed. However, in an impressive display of political ingenuity, folks found creative ways to abide by the subcommittee’s parameters while expressing their disdain. One person offered that the bill’s language be changed so that it would take effect thousands of years in the future. Another suggested a change so that Wyoming would simply refuse land transfer. All of this was caught on tape and released in a video by the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance that spread widely online, highlighting the energized public as well as the lawmakers’ arrogant dismissal of voters.

Amendment dead on arrival

As the session convened, public lands advocates at the Capitol braced to mobilize the citizenry in the event that Bebout assigned the land transfer amendment to a committee. But realizing that would lead to yet another meeting room jam-packed with pissed-off people willing to berate lawmakers for hours, he announced that he would not advance any land transfer legislation this session.

Apparently wishing to express their stubbornness (or to do their duty to the think tanks that sponsor them), two other land transfer zealots in the House, Reps. David Miller (R-Riverton) and Marti Halverson (R-Etna), introduced another land transfer bill.

But it went nowhere. Indeed, the issue was squashed for the session.

Incremental progress on public access

In the shadows of the land transfer controversy, a less-noticed bill crafted in response to the Bonander Land Exchange came to light and died in committee. But it bodes well for sessions to come.

House Bill 257, sponsored by Bill Henderson (R-Cheyenne), aimed to force the Office of State Lands and Investments to consider public access in the process of executing exchanges of state trust land with private landowners.

Currently, the department considers the size and value of the lands in question, but does not consider access to surrounding public lands. The Bonander exchange, which was eventually killed, was controversial not only because the state was handing over prime elk hunting territory to a rancher in exchange for what amounted to cow pasture, but also because the swap would have cut off access to thousands of more acres that would remain technically public, but to which one could only access from the rancher’s new land.

HB-257 would make sure the OSLI looks at such factors during land exchanges. The committee to which it was assigned decided the bill was poorly written and not ready to become law, and also noted that the existing statutes governing land exchanges could use some work—it was unclear exactly where the new law would have fit in.

But even lawmakers who voted against HB-257 largely acknowledged that it was a good idea, in principle. As public lands, public access, and outdoor recreation become increasingly important topics, it’s unlikely that this is the last time some version of this bill comes forth.

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