By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
After Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds broke the story Monday afternoon that the State of Wyoming wants to purchase 1 million acres of checkerboard land in southern Wyoming, as announced in a press conference in Cheyenne with Governor Mark Gordon and legislative leaders, I checked the governor’s press release page and found nothing about this subject.
When nothing had appeared there by Tuesday morning, I emailed the governor’s communications director requesting a press release, and was told that one would be issued that day.
I asked to be sent the press release and was instructed to sign up online for updates, which I did. When the press release was posted late that afternoon, I did not receive it.
I checked the website again and found the press release which noted support for the two bi-partisan bills that would allow Gordon, the Attorney General, and the State Loan and Investment Board (SLB) to evaluate a land purchase “that could bring new income to the state, while benefiting public access for hunting and outdoor recreation, wildlife, and other economic interests.”
The press release glowingly noted that Senate File 138 was passed unanimously out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the other bill received strong support from the House on introduction.
I had already posted a column critical of the secrecy and lack of information about this enormous proposal.
The press release from the governor’s office provided few specifics: “The bills allow the State of Wyoming to enter negotiations for the purchase of a ‘checkerboard’ of 1 million surface acres of land in southern Wyoming that was part of the original land grant to Union Pacific when they built the railroad across the nation. In addition to grazing, hunting and outdoor recreation, the parcels include mineral development opportunities for coal, oil, gas, trona, and potentially some rare earth elements.”
The press release didn’t include a map, didn’t mention in what counties the land is located, and failed to mention that 4 million acres of mineral rights are part of the deal – including mineral rights in Colorado and Utah. The two bills that are receiving such wonderful support from our legislative leaders are even more vague.
The governor’s office press release notes that if the two bills are enacted by the legislature, state officials will be able to conduct a thorough vetting process on the and if the SLB approves the proposal as viable, the legislature would have 60 days to review the final package.
On Thursday, Feb. 20th, WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham posted an article about the deal, “State could spend hundreds of millions on Occidental land.” The article was complemented with a map of the proposed land deal, provided to WyoFile from the governor’s office. That map still hasn’t been posted on the state website.
Graham’s reported that Gordon said he’s been talking with Occidental officials about the deal for six months, but Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said the talks began soon after Gordon was elected. Graham continued, “Even as the House and Senate voted to introduce the pair of bills last week, no word of the deal reached the public.
Some representatives told WyoFile that leadership discussed the House version during a closed door caucus last week without offering specifics, informing representatives details would emerge soon.”
Graham’s reporting was straight forward and provided a glimpse into the cost of the deal: hundreds of millions. But it failed to mention that two other bills have been filed that also directly apply to the deal.
As Reynolds reported on Monday, one of the bills would exempt the SLB from the state’s open meetings law, and another would expedite the process for state officials to conduct land swaps.
Governor Gordon had the opportunity to tell the people of Wyoming about this deal in his livestreamed State of the State address, but he didn’t. Two days later, the bills were filed.
Despite the near-unanimous support from legislative leaders, information about the specifics of the deal are being held close to the chest. The hypocrisy of Gordon mentioning his commitment to state government transparency in his State of the State address is not lost on me.
Gordon and his legislative enablers are controlling the narrative on this deal by controlling information. That may work in Cheyenne as state officials fast-track the legislation enabling the land negotiations through the 20-day legislative session. But out here in the rest of Wyoming, the lack of public information is accompanied by a stench of suspicion.
Want to get rid of the stink? Open the doors and operate in sunshine. The Wyoming public deserves far better than this.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.