Opinion by Ryan Lance
Drought, Fire and State Trust Lands
Ryan Lance, Director, Office of State Lands and Investments
Regardless of land ownership, nearly everyone in Wyoming is feeling the impact of the dry conditions in the state. Drought and severe weather have come together and are stretching private, local and state resources.
Most Wyoming counties qualify for federal drought disaster relief. Fire restrictions are in effect across the state. Despite the significant, and in many instances heroic, efforts of county, state and federal firefighters, wildfires have burned large swaths of the state, including already limited rangelands. This summer has truly been one for the record books.
As of the end of July, fires had burned more than 350,000 acres and 30 homes in Wyoming. Making matters worse, the National Interagency Fire Center reports that over 33,000 fires have occurred burning 3.7 million acres nationwide, which makes no mention of the acreage affected by drought. As a result, producers seeking hay or other forage within and outside Wyoming are experiencing real difficulties.
For its part, the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners is doing its best to help offset the impacts to its grazing lessees. The Board has a policy in place for State Trust Lands, which dictates that its lessees may be eligible for a rental reduction for lands impacted by fires. I strongly encourage any of our grazing lessees to contact my office if they could benefit from or have questions about this program.
One avenue that is not likely to be available to grazing lessees, which some have inquired about, is a rental reduction to compensate for loss of forage due to drought. When the Office was developing the AUM fee formula, the applicable state statutes were researched in comparison to existing grazing leases. During that review, it was determined that adjustments for “changing resource condition” are not often necessary. State grazing leases are issued for a ten-year term and, during that term, there will likely be mixtures of wet springs, tall grass, long, mild fall weather, grasshoppers, drought and blizzards. Wyoming is a large state and climatic conditions frequently vary from one region to the next – and most certainly over the course of ten years. The Office does change the carrying capacity of the land to reflect changes in use or classification of the land. But since the AUM fee formula does take into consideration changing resource conditions, pertinent market factors and averages of private land lease rates for a five-year period, the Office does not currently believe that a credit is necessary to specially account for drought conditions.
As many are aware, the most strained resource during the fire season and drought is our human resource. Like everyone else, my staff is feeling the effects of these difficult conditions. I am proud of the significant efforts of the Forestry Division and my Field Services Division staff in their response to the fires. Their efforts have helped protect people and their homes, as well as safeguard other property. When not fighting fire, our staff has been diligently trying to catch up on field related tasks, including inspections. I ask for your patience as we attempt to prioritize and reprioritize our work in the face of a record fire season. We will do all that we can during what is inherently a very limited field season in Wyoming.
To close, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the countless volunteer and other local, state and federal firefighters that have stepped forward to protect state trust lands. I would also like to thank the Legislature and Governor for having the foresight and willingness to set aside millions of dollars to respond to these fires. Without this significant investment, state and local officials would be left in the very untenable position of not being able to deploy needed resources for fear of breaking the bank. Certainly, even these funds are not unlimited – and we must be conservative in our expenditures – but they go a long way to ensure as robust a fire defense as the state and counties can muster.
After the snow starts to fly, we will have plenty of time to review and rethink the nuances of fire strategy. In my office, my fire team looks forward to this second-guessing as an opportunity to get better going forward – to redouble our efforts to ensure firefighter and public safety and, where possible, enhance our ability to protect property. But for now, I will settle on being thankful that people step forward to serve and put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of our great state and its people.