BREAKING: Wyo. Senate President Squashes Public Lands Transfer Bill

By on January 20, 2017

A screenshot of the Keep it Public, Wyoming website. The effort is a diverse coalition of people and groups that came together in the name of protecting public lands in the Cowboy State.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – From hunters and fishers to hikers and backcountry skiers, people across Wyoming are celebrating in light of news today that Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout-R, Riverton, killed the public lands transfer constitutional amendment.

“I am not sure we would have had the votes to get the constitutional amendment through,” Bebout told The Planet. The senator had planned to introduce the bill this session.

To pass the amendment—which originated in the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee in November—it would need two thirds of votes from the House and the Senate.

Proponents argued that the state could do a better job managing land than the feds. Committee member Rep. Tim Stubson-R, Casper, explained to PJH in December: “I don’t support wholesale transfer of public lands, but I think there’s an opportunity for more responsible management. What we’ve seen over and over again is that we get really good input at the state level that gets ignored once it’s sent to DC.”

Bebout, belonging to the same committee as Stubson, cited a few factors that shaped his decision today. “This is a tough [legislative] session concerning the budget and schools … we have a lot of other issues on the table that we need to concentrate on. It was a good process to get everyone’s input, but it is not the time so I killed the bill.”

Regarding the massive public opposition to the amendment bill, the senator pointed to what he deemed people’s misperception that the bill would pave the way for private land ownership. “We were trying to protect [land] access and have no sale or privatization … that is what I have said for the past couple months.”

However, opponents have pointed to the bill’s language. There was no wording prohibiting the sale of lands in the amendment.

An unlikely union of people band together

Many in Wyoming remain skeptical about the transfer of public lands. A vast group of sportspeople, conservationists and public land advocates argue that state control of public lands will ultimately result in a dramatic impact on public access, i.e.: the state’s eventual sale of these lands for things like oil and gas development. They showed up in droves to two public meetings in November and December to blast the proposed amendment.

Jeff Muratore, of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, is among the advocates engaged in this battle. He pointed to the diverse groups of people who united against the amendment as part of the reason for Bebout’s decision. “It is heartening to see folks from every walk of life—Democrats, Republicans, sportsmen, fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts—all coming together in the name of public lands,” he told PJH.

But Muratore says he knows his work is not over. “I assure you, we are not putting our guards down, I imagine something is going to come up again down the road and the numbers of people who oppose it will still be there.”

In December, Muratore explained to PJH what he saw as the potential ramifications of the bill: “[State] lawmakers who currently have voted to restrict our use on state trust lands would become the stewards of these new ‘state lands,’” he said. “While currently managed for multiple use of the people, these lands in state hands would be managed for profit.”

That means such lands would be in the hands of folks like Bebout, who happens to own an oil and natural gas drilling company—Nucor Oil and Gas in Riverton.

Muratore’s Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is joined by the Wyoming Outdoor Council, the Wyoming Wilderness Association and a cadre of diverse stakeholders who came together under the banner, Keep It Public, Wyoming in the name of protecting public lands. Their members range from anglers and hunters to wildlife enthusiasts, cyclists, mountaineers and conservationists.

Their online petition—at KeepItPublicWyo.com—has garnered hundreds of names from across the state in opposition to the transfer of public lands.

Locally, the Jackson Town Council and Board of Teton County Commissioners also voiced concern in response to the proposed amendment. This month the council and board sent a letter to local state representatives decrying the proposed constitutional amendment. Accompanying the letter were copies of the town and county’s 2015 resolutions condemning any transfer of public lands to state control.

“With approximately 97 percent of land in Teton County comprised of federally managed public lands, we strongly believe that the state should reject any efforts, plans or schemes to transfer federally managed public lands to the state, whether for ownership or management,” the letter reads.

Beyond a potent state coalition and local politico disapproval, the numbers are fueling the land transfer debate that advocates predict will continue. People like Muratore say lawmakers should heed the recent $75,000 study by Y2 Consultants on the viability of transferring public lands to state control. Commissioned by the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, the study determined it would be a costly endeavor for Wyoming to manage lands under federal mandates with little benefit to the state.

 

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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