Legislative committee assesses study on management of federal lands
Riverton – Wyomingites are well aware that one of the biggest topics addressed during the recent race for Wyoming’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is the topic of federal lands and their ownership and management.
The Select Committee on Federal Natural Resources Management has been exploring that issue through a study that was mandated several years ago by Senate File 56 in 2014.
Committee Chairman Sen. Eli Bebout said that the committee was charged to develop and introduce legislative polices related to those actions, which led to a study on federal land management.
Senate File 56 asked the Committee to commission a study and provide a report addressing management of public lands.
“What it does not say is that we’re going to privatize the public lands or limit access to that. There’s been a lot of discussion on this, and I wanted to make it very clear that the law was not intended – and was never intended – to sell or privatize lands,” Bebout emphasized. “It authorizes, ‘the development of a proposed plan for administration of management of those lands under the principles of multiple use and sustained yields.’”
The uses are legislatively mandated to include maintenance of public access for hunting, fishing and recreation, subject to closure of lands for public safety or environmental sensitivity.
The next steps of the study fell to the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI), who put out a Request for Proposal and commissioned the study, awarding the project to Y2 Consultants of Jackson.
OSLI Director Bridget Hill said, “I viewed my role as making sure our consultants followed the parameters set by the Legislature. I didn’t alter the substance of the study, and I went in with an unbiased view of what they were going to turn up.”
Brenda Younkin and Abigail Moore spent nearly a year compiling findings, accumulating data ranging from budgets to management actions, which was summarized in a final report.
“When we started this process, we wanted to tie it very closely to the requirements of the Legislature,” Younkin said. “We started with who, what, where, why, when and how, but we really want to focus on why and how right now.”
As a starting point, Y2 Consultants looked at why the state would be interested in management of federal lands.
Younkin said, “We really wanted to get our minds around why, under sustained and multiple use context, we would want to really impact the management of federal lands.”
“There were only two reasons – one is financial,” she continued. “The other is to influence the land management.”
She elaborated, noting that, as one of the largest oil and gas producers in the state, and significant amount of money is at stake.
“Influencing the management is also very important,” Younkin said. “In a state that is 48 percent federal land, that matters. It makes a difference for recreation, our way of life and our businesses.”
Y2 Consultants looked at current management within their study.
“OSLI is looking at cash for kids,” she simplified. “Forest Service (FS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) really have to manage the laws for their framework, and they’re trying to manage a political consideration. How much access is appropriate? Where are these uses appropriate? OSLI doesn’t have that burden.”
Younkin also noted that an additional point of interest is that federal land management does not correlate revenue and expenses.
“Just because they created $2 million from the land does not mean that $2 million is spent on the same landscape,” she explained. “OSLI has a fiduciary obligation to generate revenue for its beneficiaries.”
In looking at budgets, Y2 Consultants found it very difficult to quantify exactly what is spend on management of federal lands.
“Federal agencies and federal lands are managed across boundaries that don’t align with our state boundaries,” Younkin said, explaining, for example, that Wyoming lies within two regions of the Forest Service, and of the five forests in Wyoming, three cross state lines.
“When we look at management of federal lands, we have options to start the process,” Younkin said. “When we look at the question of can the transfer of management – as a whole scale transfer of all federal lands – be completed, ultimately, our findings were that it is unlikely.”
Among reasons for the unlikelihood of such an action, Younkin cited scale and cost.
“That is such a large scale to consider all at one time,” she said.
There are pilot programs that would be an example of a possible way to cooperatively manage lands.
“We found an example,” Younkin said. “There is no litigation and no press because everyone is getting along. That example is a community near Webberville, Calif.”
The partnership between BLM, FS and the community developed a cooperative agreement to manage private lands.
“By all accounts, it is working well,” Younkin explained. “The community is able to get economic benefits, and BLM and FS are able to make their requirements.”
“These mechanisms exist,” Younkin said. “They are not well utilized, and they are not well known.”
However, she also emphasizes that with changing landscapes for regulation, one important piece in developing partnerships is having clearly written agreements that allow cooperation for management of federal lands.
She also added that natural resource management or land use plans for counties are also important.
“As long as the plan does not violate federal law, those plans are required to be considered,” Younkin explained.
Committee member Tim Stubson said, “We’ve talked a lot about pilot programs, and it may be a good option for the state.”
Sen. Larry Hicks explained that management partnerships do exist within the state, particularly in looking at land management and environmental analyses, among other things, adding, “Counties and conservation districts are working cooperatively.”
“My experience is, we have to have a partnership,” Hicks continued. “All the tools they provide to us don’t mean anything if we don’t have a federal partner on the other side of the desk who is willing to implement and allow those partnerships to work.”
The presence of such a partner varies from office to office, based on the attitudes of local personnel.
“In many cases, we’ve tried, and we’re willing to partner, but sometimes we don’t have someone to work with on the other side,” Hicks commented.
Bebout asked for other ideas from Y2 Consultants, saying, “We appreciate this recommendation, but we’ve tried. How do we get to multiple use and sustained yield? Do you see any other path which we might take?”
Younkin noted that other states have looked at transfer of title, which is another opportunity, noting that it is challenging.
“The state of Wyoming and people in this room will be successful in influencing management because of those partnerships we currently have that can influence this process now,” Younkin commented. “Perseverance is going to be necessary today.”
After much discussion, the Committee voted to advance a proposed constitutional amendment that would specify how federal land would be managed if it were transferred to Wyoming. Read more about the amendment next week.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.