By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
The Wyoming Legislature concluded its session last week by passing legislation that enables state leaders to pursue purchasing 1 million acres of private property in southern Wyoming’s checkerboard, in addition to 4 million acres of mineral rights. That state officials had begun discussions with Occidental Petroleum for the purchase came to light less than a month ago when bills relating to the investment of state funds were filed shortly before the bill deadline.
Even when the public became aware that Wyoming government was interested in pursuing the purchase, state officials released very little information about the proposal, and some legislators resisted attempts to provide for public scrutiny and input before the deal could be concluded. The original proposal did not even require an affirmative vote from the legislature before the land purchase could be finalized.
I’ve been critical of the secrecy and lack of public information about this proposed land deal that is so massive that it would be the largest government purchase of private land since the United States purchased Alaska. State officials were hesitant to so much as release a map of the properties under consideration, yet were requesting that the legislature grant them broad authority to enter the deal – potentially tapping deep into various state accounts to fund the purchase, with some estimates putting the purchase price at more than a billion dollars. The pesky public was in essence being told to simply trust our government leaders to spend more than a billion dollars without any public scrutiny. That was appalling, and I maintain that state officials should sell the public on this deal if they want our support.
Fortunately, the final legislation does require state officials to release details and hold at least one public meeting, and also requires an affirmative vote of the legislature before the deal could be finalized. But it still holds “trust us, we’re from the government” provisions.
In late February, Governor Mark Gordon and state legislative leaders penned an op-ed finally attempting to sell the public on the deal, noting: “This acquisition has enormous potential benefits for multiple-use that are valuable to all citizens of Wyoming, giving us the opportunity to assemble one of the largest contiguous pieces of public land in the continental United States. One that will benefit wildlife, hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists while achieving responsible development of rich natural resources.”
They really haven’t told us their vision on how the land would be managed – since state trust lands are managed with the primary purpose of generating revenues, and are not “public” land. For example, camping and open fires are prohibited on state trust land, and the recently passed legislation calls for the purchased lands to be managed the same as other school trust lands.
But the real “trust us” piece of the puzzle is this: Under the enrolled act passed by the legislature, the SLIB “is authorized to take all actions the board deems necessary to sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of purchased real property assets and other interests” without restriction.
At least the legislature is required to approve of the purchase of the properties, but from then on, SLIB – the top five statewide elected officials – are empowered to sell any of the acquired assets without restriction. There is no provision for competitive bid, public notice – nothing.
You can envision the intention of this provision. Perhaps it is meant to enable the state to sell some of the assets to industrial companies with specific interests (such as oil and gas, or trona, or existing infrastructure). Perhaps its purpose is to enable the state to quickly transfer ownership of mineral rights that are held in Utah and Colorado. Perhaps its purpose is to enable some other deal that’s already being negotiated behind closed doors. It’s this last one that should be of concern because the legislation provides a clue that may be its intended purpose.
The legislation allows SLIB to “accept federal grants and other contributions, grants, gifts, bequests and donations from any source” to purchase the land. The governor’s staff attended legislative deliberations to speak of the importance of this provision, noting that such “gifts” may have “some strings attached to them,” while cautioning legislators about “unnecessarily tying the hands” of state negotiators by imposing too many specific provisions in the bill.
That sure sounds like a deal is in the works to me.
But I know, I’m just supposed to trust the government.
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 email@example.com.