On Tuesday afternoon, it took 19 minutes for Representative Steve Harshman (R-Natrona County) to introduce and describe to fellow House members revamped House Bill 249 allowing the State Loan and Investment Board to investigate and pursue the purchase of 1 million acres of surface, and 4 million acres of mineral rights in southern Wyoming. It took House members about half an hour of asking questions before the bill was passed by the committee of the whole on first reading.
Representative Scott Clem (R-Campbell County) said he is struggling with the policy shift of state government taking over large properties instead of allowing private markets to take advantage of the land sale. “Why should this body entertain this policy shift?” he asked. Clem said he’s wrestling with the state acting as though it’s a private corporation.
Another representative suggested a map of the proposed land deal should be circulated, and it was also noted that there are numerous other entities that are interested in the same properties, so the state has competition in the deal.
Representative Chuck Gray (R-Natrona County) asked if legislators could have an idea of the range of possible purchase price, noting that he’d heard the range from $400 million on the low end, to $2 billion on the high end.
Harshman responded, “I really don’t know. I’ve heard that same range,” adding that the state won’t know until it has done more research. Larsen urged caution to the legislative body to “not let unanswered questions or speculation grow and rule the day.”
After listening to other legislators asking questions and getting few specific answers, Gray cautioned about “irrational exuberance” taking hold when so little is known about the deal.
Harshman responded that he is also cautious about “irrational exuberance,” but added that this legislation establishes sideboards for state action, asserting that the State Loan and Investment Board could examine the land purchase on its own – without the legislature acting.
“We don’t even need to do this,” Harshman said. “The SLIB could do this on its own.”
Representative Albert Sommers (R-Sublette County) said he still has three concerns that he intends to address via amendments in Wednesday’s floor session. Sommers wants an affirmative vote of the legislature before the deal could be finalized; the addition of a public participation process by requiring SLIB to hold a public meeting in an affected county; and some recognition of traditional uses of these lands, noting that some of the grazing lessees have used this landscape for more than 100 years.
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.