By Rod Miller, columnist
This year’s session of the Wyoming Legislature is over, and the solons have departed Cheyenne, leaving the rest of us to scratch our noggins and figure out exactly what they did. So, here’s my postmortem.
Our legislators did absolutely nothing – zilch, nada, zero – to address Wyoming’s looming crisis in education funding. Nor did they provide any innovative solutions to the state’s ongoing fiscal difficulties.
But they did ensure that every unborn child in the Cowboy State will have an AR-15, so there’s that. I suppose, in some folks’ minds, that would qualify as health care.
And they passed, and the governor signed, HB122: for that foresight, the legislature deserves our thanks. In this bill, sponsored by Rep. Cyrus Western, the legislature has applied free market, capitalist principles to one of the thorniest problems in Wyoming, public access to “landlocked” public parcels.
Ever since humans came to what is now Wyoming, they have tussled and fought over who gets to do what on the landscape. The Battle of Crowheart Butte and the Johnson County War are but two examples in our history where disagreements over land use resulted in bloodshed.
With the passage of the various homesteading acts and grants to the Union Pacific Railroad, the federal government further complicated what had always been a situation fraught with controversy and acrimony. These laws created a pattern wherein about three million acres of public land in Wyoming are now surrounded by private land, and have provided headaches for both private landowners and sportsmen for generations.
Two of the great underpinnings of Wyoming culture are hunting and private property ownership. No true Wyomingite, with Brown & Gold running through their veins, can stand the thought of the federal government monkeying around with either. And yet these two interests have been at each other’s throats for decades, because of the irrational pattern of land ownership in the state.
Another cornerstone of conservative Wyoming ideology has always been, “If you want something, then pay for it.” We have always preferred Adam Smith’s approach to that of Karl Marx. That’s why the philosophy behind HB122 is so elegant, and should be embraced by every Wyomingite.
In brief, HB122 intends to raise money for the purchase of access easements across private land to allow sportsmen to reach those landlocked acres. The new law will add a few bucks to the price of the conservation stamp that each hunter or fisherman buys with their license. Revenues accrued will be used by the Wyoming Game and Fist Department to secure access across private land to federal land that would otherwise be inaccessible.
The important thing to note is that easements will be purchased from landowners in willing buyer/willing seller transactions. This approach has two advantages. First, voluntary transactions will be cheaper in the long run and happen quicker than exercising eminent domain (the taking of private property for public use through a condemnation action). Second, negotiations over easement purchases authorized by HB122 will bring landowners and sportsmen to the table to address eye-to-eye a conflict that has festered too long.
Have no illusions, HB122 won’t provide an easement into each and every one of those three million landlocked acres. Some of that country isn’t worth accessing anyhow, since rattlesnakes and jackrabbits avoid it. And not every landowner will be willing to negotiate.
But, for that really primo public land, surrounded by a landowner willing to sit down and dicker over an easement, Western’s bill is a welcome breath of reason when emotion and anger have prevailed up til now. And its taking a step away from relying on the blunt instrument of eminent domain.
Buying what you want is Adam Smith’s solution, taking what you want by force is Karl Marx’ solution. As for me, I’ve always preferred the free market approach of Smith.