FEATURE: Guardians of Place
Jackson Hole, WY — Trying to qualify the value of public lands can leave a person speechless. What are the words for that feeling as dawn breaks, flooding the valley with light, as backcountry skiers make their ascents up Jackson’s peaks? How to explain a sighting of a bull moose’s regal stance as he noshes willow branches with a crystal clear stream at his feet? How to impart the exact tenor of those indelible childhood memories of camping in a national forest and listening to wild, adventurous yarns told by adults?
What makes experiences like these possible is a simple yet radical notion in America that some portion of the land be reserved for public access, in effect that the lands exist for the public good. It’s one of this country’s most democratic notions: You don’t have to be rich to access nature. You own it collectively with the rest of your fellow Americans. Now, this message has managed to unify a swelling number of public land advocates and activists, an army of people who come from vastly different backgrounds all in the name of protecting public lands, and today they sit on the front lines vigilantly awaiting what comes next.
Public land advocates claimed a victory Friday when a proposed public lands transfer amendment to the Wyoming constitution died before it made it to the legislature’s floor. Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout-R, Riverton, who had hoped to introduce the amendment this session, told PJH: “I am not sure we would have had the votes to get the constitutional amendment through.”
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. “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.
Many in Wyoming remain skeptical about the transfer of public lands. A vast group of advocates argue that state control would ultimately result in the sale of these lands for things like oil and gas development. These public land defenders showed up in droves to two public meetings in November and December to blast the proposed amendment.
When they heard the news Friday, conservationists around the state celebrated. “We’re thrilled to see this amendment get killed by Senator Bebout,” said Max Ludington, volunteer chair of the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance (WYHAA).
WYHAA is joined by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, the Wyoming Wilderness Association and a cadre of diverse stakeholders who came together under the banner, Keep It Public, Wyoming to wage a battle against the transfer of public lands. Their members range from anglers and hunters to wildlife enthusiasts, cyclists, mountaineers and conservationists. The group’s online petition—at KeepItPublicWyo.com—has garnered hundreds of names from across the state in opposition to the transfer of public lands.
Jeff Muratore, of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, is among the advocates engaged in this battle. He pointed to the 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.
Ludington too noted the massive opposition by various constituents. “It truly speaks to both the power and the passion that hunters and anglers bring to this issue. The legislature has recognized that this amendment flew in the face of what Wyoming citizens, broadly, and hunters and anglers, specifically, want to see.”
For Ludington, whose day job is project director with the Jackson conservation organization LegacyWorks Group, public lands were for many years an amenity he took for granted. He grew up camping with his family in North Carolina. In 2001 after graduating college, he moved to Jackson Hole. Now he is raising his own family here. Every chance he finds, he is outside fishing, hunting, hiking, biking, camping. His story is not unique; his is like so many Wyomingites.
“When I have free time I almost always try to get outside and, inevitably, I end up on public lands,” Ludington said.
Ludington says he feels fortunate to have so many public lands in his back yard. In his opinion, the backcountry of Wyoming offers unparalleled hunting and fishing opportunities, as well as something else: “True solace.”
An evolving relationship
About eight years ago, Ludington had an experience that attuned him to the fact that a mountain doesn’t always belong to everyone. It was 2008 and he was on a work trip in Argentina providing resource management training for the Argentinian park service, and also working with them on a large-scale trail restoration project. During his travels, he encountered a surprising fact: some of Argentina’s legendary, awe-inspiring mountain ranges are privately owned.
“The entire flank of one of the mountains was private land,” Ludington said. “The Argentines were trying to explain to me that we needed to pay a fee to cross over and it took me several explanations to understand that the mountain range leaving the park was privately owned.”
His Argentinean colleagues explained that most of the mountains around the area were also privately owned. “Having lived in Wyoming for about a decade at the time, it was just unfathomable to me that people owned the wild places around them and restricted access to those lands.”
Because of his work and his choice of residence, Ludington pretty much lives, eats and breathes public lands. So it’s no wonder he was outraged earlier this month when Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney made her first order of business to vote in favor of changing an accounting rule that Congress uses when considering whether to dispose of federal public land. This would effectively fast track the transfer of federal public lands to states. The majority of Republican representatives also voted in favor of this rule. It passed the House 233-190.
“Liz Cheney used one of her first votes to tell the public a huge whopper: that transferring federal lands to states won’t cost the federal government a cent,” Ludington said. “She’s saying these lands have no value, when in reality, they are priceless to many Wyomingites, especially the hunting and fishing community.”
Cheney did not respond to an email request for comment.
Currently, the Congressional Budget Office requires lawmakers to consider lost revenues to the U.S. Treasury that result from such transfers—from energy extraction, grazing, logging and other activities. The rule passed by the House would falsely designate any transfer legislation “budget neutral,” eliminating existing safeguards against undervaluing public lands and making a bill calling for a land transfer more palatable. Cheney also just became a new member of the influential House Rules Committee that proposed this and other rule changes.
Outdoor industry bigwigs fire back
But Cheney’s vote was only the first public lands bombshell of 2017. The next one came from the other camp, public lands advocates in the outdoor recreation industry. Responding to Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s promise to challenge former President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears twin buttes area as a national monument, the heads of two preeminent outdoor recreation companies spoke out publicly against Herbert. Black Diamond Equipment founder Peter Metcalf—also the founder of Outdoor Retailers trade shows which happen biannually in Utah—said he would pull the trade shows from the state if the governor and legislators didn’t change their stance on Bears Ears specifically, and public lands generally.
“We are calling on Herbert, Utah’s congressional delegation and other state leaders to drop their efforts to take down Bears Ears National Monument, to gut the Antiquities Act, to transfer our public lands to the states and to gut funding for these monuments, parks and public lands,” Metcalf wrote in a January 10 guest editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune. “If they don’t, the Outdoor Retailer shows must leave Utah.”
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard followed suit, issuing his own statement taking Herbert to task.
“Every January and August, Patagonia and hundreds of other companies spend gobs of money to show our latest products at the Outdoor Retailer show,” Chouinard wrote. “The whole thing is a cash cow for Salt Lake City. You’d think politicians in Utah would bend over backward to make us feel welcome. But instead, Gov. Gary Herbert and his buddies have spent years denigrating our public lands, the backbone of our business, and trying to sell them off to the highest bidder. He’s created a hostile environment that puts our industry at risk.”
“We love Utah,” Chouinard continued, “but Patagonia’s choice to return for future shows will depend on the Governor’s actions. I’m sure other states will happily compete for the show by promoting public lands conservation.”
Back home in Wyoming, Governor Matt Mead has, in recent months, recognized outdoor recreation as a key economic driver in Wyoming, and he has indicated that he wants Wyoming to be a friendly place for outdoor retailers. At the October 2016 SHIFT Festival, Mead announced a new initiative to promote the outdoor recreational industry in Wyoming. He has created a Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources to work with private and public stakeholders to develop recommendations that grow Wyoming’s outdoor recreation economy.
“The Task Force will build on the considerable work already done and offer ideas to improve outdoor recreation opportunities, marketing and business recruitment,” Mead said in a statement at the time. “There is no better place for outdoor-related businesses than Wyoming. Our business climate, workforce, cost of living and quality of life make Wyoming a great option for new and existing businesses.”
As outdoor recreation’s power grows, so does that recognition, explained SHIFT founder Christian Beckwith. “The most recent study showed that outdoor recreation generates $646 billion dollars per year in consumer spending. That places it ahead of extractives. Which is one of the reasons that Mead created the task force—he recognizes it’s an economic engine.”
The numbers in Wyoming are equally impressive to national figures. According to a 2012 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation generates $4.5 billion in consumer spending each year in Wyoming. It provides 50 thousand jobs and $1.4 billion in wages and salaries in the state, as well as generating $300 million in state and local tax revenue.
According to David Bush, Mead’s spokesperson, the governor wants to keep an open door to outdoor manufacturers and retailers. Bush said the Outdoor Recreation Task Force is active in contacting companies and exploring opportunities to expand this sector of the state’s economy. “The governor knows what an asset our outdoor amenities are and what a great place Wyoming is for outdoor product manufacturers,” he said.
Those who work closely on public land management are attuned to the myriad values of the outdoors, economic and esoteric. Bridger Teton National Forest Wilderness & Recreation program manager Linda Merigliano understands firsthand how valuable public lands are to the state’s economy. “There’s a myth that the economic contribution of outdoor recreation only supports tourism and support services,” she said. “But that’s only part of the story. The reality is recreation contributes a huge part of the economy.”
The numbers back her up. The Outdoor Industry Association found that 71 percent of Wyoming residents participate in outdoor recreation each year—and that’s not counting hunting and fishing, which were estimated separately. You can’t throw a snowball in Wyoming without hitting someone who loves the outdoors and spends time and money doing so. Outdoor recreation includes everything from tourism to backcountry snowmobiling, Nordic skiing, climbing, kayaking, camping, backcountry skiing and hiking, mountain biking, and most anything people do on BLM land, national forests, and in national parks – all publicly owned land.
Merigliano notes that Wyoming’s human demographics have changed drastically in recent decades.
“The story of many Western communities has changed,” she said “People today are much more mobile. So they are looking for amenity based lifestyle and they are looking at what attracts them to communities which are these outdoor recreation opportunities.”
That’s certainly the case for Ludington. “Hunting has taken me to some incredible places in the Bridger Teton National Forest that I would never have set foot on otherwise.” For him, the rugged hillsides and isolated meadows he finds provide a unique and much-desired sense of isolation and being completely disconnected from the rest of the world. “These aren’t necessarily the spots with incredible views that you see in catalogues,” he says. “But they provide the unique backcountry experience that has made so many of us fall in love with hunting and fishing,” he said.
Hunters and anglers have become a formidable force in the fight to keep public lands public. WYHAA has more than 5,000 Facebook followers. Its video showing Wyoming citizens voicing their opposition to the public lands transfer amendment at a November public meeting in Cheyenne generated more than 217,000 views and 3,000 shares on Facebook.
Another conservation organization of sportsmen and women, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), currently has chapters in 26 states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada. The organization was formed in 2004 and boasts nearly 10,000 paying members. They estimate that their Facebook posts and Facebook Live events routinely reach more than one million people.
BHA’s board chair Ryan Busse recently published a guest column in The New York Times condemning the U.S. House vote to designate lands transfers as “budget neutral.”
“No state is prepared to shoulder the taxpayer burdens of maintaining forest roads, fighting wildfires and controlling weeds,” Busse wrote.
Here at home, the public lands transfer amendment—killed Friday—was the latest attack on public lands in the state. The amendment outlined the methods by which the state would manage federal lands if lands were transferred to the state in the form of an exchange. However, as a recent letter of opposition from the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of Commissioners points out, the amendment asks Wyoming voters to decide on how lands should be managed in the event of a transfer without first asking voters if they approve of land transfers to begin with.
People like Luther Propst, Teton County Democratic party chair, say the bill was disingenuous. “I consider it like a group of burglars that want to steal your car by sneaking into your bedroom at night and taking your car keys. … The authors of this bill were trying to create a message that the legislature with approval of voters is ready, willing, and able to take over public lands.”
Advocates like Craig Benjamin, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, echoed Propst’s concerns: “This amendment is a thinly veiled attempt to lay the foundation for transferring public lands to state ownership—an idea that is overwhelmingly opposed by people across Wyoming,”
However, proponents of public lands transfers maintain that the federal government hasn’t done a good enough job managing public lands for multiple use and sustained yield, i.e. not enough extraction happening. Bebout—who happens to be president of an oil and natural gas drilling company—Nucor Oil and Gas in Riverton—noted that Wyoming is dependent on resources from minerals for the jobs mineral extraction creates. “Those that want to leave it in ground, there’s no other plan to supplement revenue.”
Bebout says the bill would have protected state interests. “It’s not about taking away access,” he said, adding that he does not want public lands to be privatized or sold.
House District 22 Rep. Marti Halverson also is a vehement advocate for transferring management of federal lands to state hands. On her website, she claims that the federal government is in fact legally bound to transfer lands, citing a clause in the Wyoming state constitution. The clause states “the people of this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof … and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States.” Halverson says that the word “shall” means “will” or “must” and thus that the U.S. must extinguish those rights and titles to public lands.
Illegal land grabs?
But conservationists use the first part of the clause to explain why it would be illegal for the state to take over public lands. According to an interview with Mead in the Casper Star Tribune in December, two state attorneys advised the governor that Wyoming is not legally structured to obtain federal land. Not only is the legality in question, the transfer would be costly. A 2016 study by Y2 Consultants of Jackson explored the feasibility of transferring management of federal lands to the state. The $75,000 study, commissioned by the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, determined it would be a costly endeavor for Wyoming to manage lands under federal mandates with little benefit to the state.
If the finger-pointing and fine-print reading seems confusing, it is. On the one hand, public lands advocates can seem tone deaf to the concerns of those who make their living in the extraction industry, still the state’s leading industry. On the other hand, state management advocates can seem out of touch with the present and future use of public lands. Halverson asserts that federal management is poor and that the lands aren’t being managed enough for revenue. Yet every chance they get, Republican lawmakers vote to cut funding to national parks and forests, which are then expected to do more with less. Like Bebout, Halverson says she does not want to sell off public lands; she just wants the state to have control. But the problem is the only way the state could afford to manage the lands is if it sold off lands to foot the bill.
There are some people who see both sides. Hunter and horseman Barry Reiswig says there are legitimate concerns that the federal process is very slow, and he acknowledges that Obama’s environmental policies made things difficult for the coal industry. “But I don’t think the solution is to sell off public lands or put them under state management.”
Reiswig lives in Cody where he fishes, hunts, and rides horses. His favorite spots include the Bear Tooth plateau and the headwaters of Greybull River. A member of Backcountry Horsemen of America, Reiswig says there is a rising tide of conservative voters in Wyoming and Montana who are coming out against public lands transfers.
“Our membership is conservative,” Reiswig said. “Backcountry horsemen are really upset about [the proposed amendment]. I’ve never seen anything like the concern over it.”
For many residents of the rural west, the reason they live where they live is for the access to the great outdoors. As Gillette school counselor Bryon Lee points out, Wyoming is a self-selecting state. A lot of people choose to live here, and recreating in nature is a big reason why.
Lee is the board president of the Wyoming Wilderness Alliance. He was born and raised in northeastern Wyoming, outside of Gillette. His father was friendly with local ranchers. He remembers in the early part of summer he would hike and ride around on the ranchlands, seeing badgers, porcupines, and myriad raptors. In the fall, his family helped the ranchers with haying. It instilled in Lee a love of being outside in open spaces. In high school he backpacked in the Cloud Peak Wilderness, which made a huge impression on him coming from the Gillette area where he says rangelands have been decimated by commercial development.
A school counselor at a K-12 school, Lee tries to instill in students the same love of outdoors that’s such a pivotal part of his own life. He sometimes reads to them from the Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Act defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Like many people interviewed for this article, Lee cited one of the benefits of adventuring in public lands to be, “it’s nice to know you might not see another person for a few days.”
Solitude in nature is one of the ways humans reckon with the big issues in life, to get perspective, to rejuvenate and still their minds. “For me, much of what has made my life wonderful is the experience I’ve had on public lands,” Propst said. “Along with family and community, public land is what matters. For me it is the place where you find the answers to the questions that matter in life.”
Not only do people find meaning out walking in the woods, they find better mental health. A 2015 study led by Stanford University found that people who walk for 90 minutes a day in a natural area showed decreased activity in a part of the brain associated with depression.
In her role with the forest service, Merigliano pays attention to studies like this. “Public lands and contact with nature are part of our nation’s health infrastructure,” she said. “More and more evidence is coming out that people’s health, physical and mental, is greatly increased by being in nature. To have those quiet spaces where you have the ability to put things in perspective in combination with physically doing something and not being bombarded with negative stuff is incredibly healing.”
Show us the money
Health and human spirit aside, economics could be a big factor in what saves public lands. The most impassioned activists acknowledge the economic factor. Some say the public lands transfer is the single most nonpartisan issue facing our state. “Keeping our public lands public is really about preserving the culture and heritage of our state,” Luddington said. “Not to mention the growing economic engine that is the outdoor recreation industry.”
In addition to his outdoor recreation task force, Mead created a Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force last February. “It is the first ever state-level effort to study the benefits and opportunities of bicycle and pedestrian pathways and natural surface trails,” said Tim Young, executive director of Wyoming Pathways and a member of the task force. According to Young, the task force will create a report about bicycling and walking on everything from walkable main streets to mountain bike trails. “It’s going to look at safety, opportunities for biking and walking, enhanced tourism and community enhancements from biking and walking. We want to identify how the state can help communities with their trail and pathways projects, and how to coordinate some of the federal and state grant sources available.”
Mead’s task forces on outdoor recreation and pathways do not signal backward-looking leadership. The governor seems well aware of the economic benefits for Wyoming of all manner of outdoor adventuring, from casual sightseeing to extreme sports. What remains to be seen is how forcefully the governor will support the public lands on which all this lucrative recreating takes place.
So far, Mead is not taking a hard line. According to Bush, the governor has “concerns” about the transfer of federal public lands to the state. Mead has suggested that Wyoming could work with the federal government to develop a pilot land management project. “Baseline environmental measurements would be taken for soil, wildlife, and vegetation on a piece of federal land,” Bush said. “The state would then manage that land for a period of time and determine if the environmental measurements improved.”
But it’s unclear how the governor’s pilot project plan would circumvent the general opposition to state management of federal lands, which already have environmental safeguards in place.
Meanwhile, citizen activists like Ludington are not resting easy. He says the hunting and fishing community has always opposed public lands transfers, but he says that the community was not as vocal as it’s become in the past two years. Combine those efforts with traditional conservationists like Propst, outdoor recreation advocates like Beckwith, and pathways emissaries like Young, and future legislation to transfer public lands to the state likely faces formidable opposition.
Ludington said he and WYHAA will continue to fight any efforts by the state legislature to take over public lands. He hopes instead to work with the legislature to devise collaborative solutions that can lead to better local input on federal land management, particularly as it pertains to hunting and fishing opportunities in the state.
“Hunters and anglers around this state know exactly what we stand to lose,” he said. “We are not going to let the legislature give away or sell off our cultural identity.” PJH