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Federal lands: Legislature considers land transfers

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Gillette – Wyoming is comprised of roughly 26.5 million acres of land. Thirty million of those acres are owned by the federal government, and the state only holds approximately 4 million acres. The Wyoming legislation is entertaining a potential change in those ratios and has formed a task force to examine the impacts it would have. 

In addition to Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Idaho are examining the opportunity to change the ratio of federal and state lands. 

The first meeting of the Task Force on the Transfer of Public Lands was held on June 5 in Gillette, and Senators Eli Bebout and Larry Hicks and Representatives David Miller and Kermit Brown collected input on the transfer of federal lands.

A report with their findings is to be compiled no later than Nov. 1 and the task force will be dissolved. 

Effort in the West

Upon formation of statehood, many states wrote into their enabling acts that the people “forever disclaim any right and title to any unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof . . . that until the title thereto be extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and subject to the disposition of the United States,” according to the American Lands Council (ALC).

This portion of the enabling act stipulates that the government would dispose of the federal lands to the states. However, this has not been satisfied in the states west of Nebraska. 

“Statehood promises, read as a whole, are the same,” exclaimed Representative Ken Ivory (R-Utah), president of the ALC. “In many cases they are word for word the same.”

Even with identical wording in their enabling acts, Wyoming is comprised of 48.9 percent federal land while South Dakota has a miniscule 5.7 percent.  

Control of the lands

An increased control over Wyoming lands was cited during public comment to be in the benefit of landowners across the state that continually deal with oil and gas lines crossing their land.

Fred Oedekoven, a Campbell County rancher, is facing a fifth pipeline on his land. 

“I have four lanes already through me,” said Oedekoven. “When they put a pipeline through, they tell you it is in the best interest of the public. If it is in the best interest of the public as a whole, it should be as easy to get across federal lands as it is private lands.”

Campbell County Commissioner Garry Becker said the oil company stated they are going through private land because permitting was too lengthy and difficult on federal lands. 

Rob Hendry, Natrona County commissioner, land owner and BLM lessee, added his concern during public comment that a resource can be on private land but if any part crosses federal land, it is considered property of the government. 

“The control is not only over what they own, it is over what they can touch,” said Hendry, speaking of mineral rights.

According to Ivory, there is more than $150 trillion in minerals locked up in federal lands that are not being utilized. 

Potential benefits

“If Wyoming had control over its own land, we could keep some of the money that the land produces instead of Washington taking it,” commented Becker. 

He said a benefit of increasing state lands would be keeping revenue in the state, rather than being taken by the government.

“The federal government controls half of the land in our state, and we can’t do anything on any of that land,” added Becker. “Wyomings industries pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year and the government only gives us $5 million back a year.”

“We used to get back 48 percent when coal leases were sold, even though the coal was on private land, because the federal government controls what is below, they keep that 52 percent,” he continued. “Two months ago, they stopped that. They are keeping back $52 million from us.”

The sentiment was echoed by others.

“We need to secure Wyoming for our benefit and keep organizations outside of Wyoming from telling us how to operate our state,” stated Roy Edwards, former county commissioner, during public comment. “We can take care of our own lands way better than the federal government.” 

The U.S. Forest Service also provided comments to the Roundup on the potential for transferring federal lands to state ownership, noting that they are focused primarily on protecting the land for the future.

“The Forest Service is committed to continue working with state and local partners,” said Chris Strebig, U.S. Forest Service region two media officer, “and being active land stewards in Wyoming to provide a mix of uses including timber, grazing, recreation, wildlife and fish habitat while addressing compelling forest health needs, protecting communities from wildfire, and meeting tribal trust responsibilities.”

Two more meetings will occur to further discuss the topic. Presently, the times and dates have not been set.

Kelsey Tramp is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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