Opinion by Ryan Lance
Board Manages 7.4 Million Acres of Wyoming State Trust Lands
by Ryan Lance, Director, Office of State Lands and Investments
The Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners oversees 3.5 million surface acres and 3.9 million mineral acres of state trust land. With the surface and mineral estates being distinct in terms of management and oversight, the functional extent of the Board’s responsibility for supervision and thoughtful stewardship covers at least 7.4 million acres – and even more if you add the wind estate and pore space, both of which extend from the surface but require unique management.
One of the most difficult tasks the Land Office faces is managing abuse of trust land, including fences being knocked or shot down, illegal off-road use that tears up pastures, shot up glass being peppered across state leases and trash being inconsiderately and illegally dumped on state sections. Former Land Office Director Ed Grant frequently recounted his experience with a grazing lessee who brought in several five-gallon buckets full of broken glass that he had collected from one of his property leases.
Ultimately, the Board of Land Commissioners limited recreational access to the “broken glass” lease, but abuse persists on many state land sections. In fact, over the span of two days last week we received calls from a half dozen citizens with concerns ranging from bullets landing in someone’s front yard, illegal trash dumping and trespass to a state-installed gate that was apparently being winched down so someone could either steal it or illegally gain access to a state land section that had been closed to motorized use.
As my grandmother used to say, there are a lot of good people in the world, and you only hear about the bad ones. Certainly, well-intentioned hunters, gun enthusiasts and hikers legally gain access to state trust lands every day and leave them better than they found them. They understand that trust lands are NOT public lands, and that they exist to help fund public education and other state institutions like the State Hospital and the University of Wyoming. They understand that access to these trust lands is not a right, but instead a privilege extended to the public by the Board of Land Commissioners – a privilege that can be limited or taken away altogether.
Despite recent efforts to bolster State Land Office field operations, we only have three field personnel responsible for surface management, two employees in charge of mineral inspections and 11 district personnel for field operations for State Forestry. There are others who are active in the field, but these 16 employees are on the front lines with what equates to 294,000 acres of field responsibility per employee. With state revenues in decline, more employees are likely not in the cards – in fact, budget restraints may force us to eliminate positions over the course of the next year. Fortunately, the Office also has 3,981 grazing lessees that help us police these state trust lands. We rely heavily on our lessees to be our boots on the ground, but our ability to call on the good humor of our lessees is limited. Certainly they want to help, but like anyone, standing toe to toe with someone with a loaded firearm is a bit disconcerting, especially since the lessee is already preoccupied with calving, fixing fence and providing an income for their family.
The Land Office also seeks the help of local law enforcement and game wardens. But, like our lessees, the sheriff’s deputies and wardens have other obligations that limit their ability to baby-sit several million acres of land.
While we likely can’t end all abuse, by working together and providing information to the public we can help protect state trust lands. I believe that if the public understands, they will do their part to do right by the school children of Wyoming and the lessees that help us foot the bill for their education.