Joint Ag Committee moves forward bills related to landlocked state lands
Casper – In a special one-day meeting held Nov. 7 at Casper College, the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee met to discuss a broad array of bills affecting the agriculture industry.
While many of the bills were tabled for further changes and discussion, the committee moved forward on a resolution related to state and federal school trust lands exchanges, as well as a legislative review of state-federal land transfers.
Resolution for exchanges
The first piece of legislation was a resolution related to state-federal school trust land exchanges and requests that Congress of the United States “enact legislation requiring the exchange of certain landlocked school trust lands in Wyoming.”
“In the Act of Admission, when the state of Wyoming came into the union, the federal government conveyed every 16th and 36th section for the sole purpose of funding the public school system,” explained Committee Chairman Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs). “Along with that, they also granted other institutional lands.”
Legislation was crafted to address institutional lands that are locked by other federal lands.
“The intent of what we’re trying to do is to take those state lands granted to the state for the specific purpose of funding institutions, getting them out of the middle of federal lands by doing a land exchange, based on fair appraisal, so we can generate revenues for which they were conveyed to the state of Wyoming for,” Hicks explains. “This has been done in Utah several times in the last 15 years, so it isn’t a foreign concept.”
Jason Crowder, assistant director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI), explained OSLI has provided the requested information, and noted, “We could pick and choose different parcels. We’ve gone through analysis, and we can have conversation about different parcels, how they’re trapped and how they are limited.”
Some changes made by the Legislative Services Office (LSO) to the bill to reflect the intent of the committee and avoid inappropriately limiting parcels eligible for exchange.
OSLI also provided some general clean-up language throughout the bill, as well, including changes to reflect that not all lands within the state are school trust lands and proceeds from these lands benefit a variety of causes.
“Ninety-four percent of landlocked state lands are school trust lands, and the rest benefit other entities,” explained Hicks. “This is a joint resolution. This is a position statement that we are asking our federal government and congressional delegation to recognize we have trust lands we are unable to access, in some cases, to maximize the revenue for the institutions to which those lands were granted in the state.”
During the public comment period, the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Steph Kessler indicated full support for the resolution, calling it an “opportunity to pull together diverse constituencies in Wyoming on something that can be a win-win proposition for our state.”
Jim Magagna of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) adds, “WSGA is well aware of the challenges faced by the state, as well as the private sector, in completing land exchanges with the federal government. To the extent that this resolution calls upon Congress to direct federal and agencies to exchanged landlocked lands within the state, WSGA is supportive of this legislation.”
However, WSGA also cautioned against attempts to complete one large exchange agreement, which may not allow for careful consideration of all factors on individual parcels and could limit adequate public participation.
After a handful of revisions to the bills, including suggestions provided by LSO, the committee unanimously approved the bill.
In addition to a resolution urging Congress to allow transfer of lands, the committee also passed a bill that would require the involvement of the Wyoming Legislature anytime OSLI wants to sell or exchange 1,280 acres or more to the federal government of state-owned lands, the proposed agreement would be required to be submitted to the Wyoming Legislature.
“OSLI would be prohibited from moving forward until the Legislature has its final say,” explained an LSO staff member. “This committee would be required to analyzed the proposed agreement, and if they would like to consent to the agreement, they would be required to sponsor legislation.”
Additionally, the bill would allow the Legislature to recommend amendments to the agreement to OSLI, which would then have to be accepted by the federal government before an agreement could be finalized.
Concerns about the constitutionality of the bill arose with LSO, and an LSO staff member explained several cases through the Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature and state agencies have a separation of powers.
“It is fairly uncertain which way the Supreme Court would come down on this issue, whether the bill is constitutional or not,” the LSO staff member said. “Strong arguments could be made for both sides.”
No net loss
Among the provisions included in the bill, one provision provides that equal acreages should be exchange to conform with OLSI’s policy of no net loss of lands.
“That is a policy – not a law – to not have a 10,000 net loss or gain of state land at any time,” Hicks explained.
Magagna, however, commented, “WSGA supports the amendment to current law, providing that any exchange should be based on equal values not equal acreages. However, we do not at this time support the requirement for legislative approval.”
Aside from constitutional issues, Magagna noted the Board of Land Commissioners has exercised due diligence in considering sales and exchanges, providing adequate opportunity for public input.
“We do not feel that a legislative body is best equipped to exercise the trust responsibilities required when making decisions regarding these lands,” he added.
Crowder noted agreements with the federal government regarding land transactions are negotiated carefully to compensate for a variety of mitigating factors. Attempts by the Wyoming Legislature to change such agreements could dramatically change the outcome.
“Land transactions with the federal government are extremely tedious and time consuming, and when we go back to the drawing board, it only adds to that,” Crowder said.
Hicks commented, “That’s a legitimate concern.”
Ultimately, however, the bill passed.
Look for more information from the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee meeting in next week’s Roundup.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.