For nearly two years, a proposed public land swap on pristine public land at the base of the Big Horn Mountains outside Sheridan has languished before the Board of Land Commissioners. It's been tabled indefinitely on three different occasions without rejection or support.
On Thursday the tabling continued. No other board members supported State Auditor Kristi Racines' proposal to discuss the land transfer. This board includes Gov. Mark Gordon, Secretary of State Chuck Gray, State Treasurer Curt Meier and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder.
"At this point it's been two years, I think we need to vote it up or down," Racines told Cowboy State Daily after the meeting. "It's still not resolved and everybody on both sides deserves to have this dispensed with."
Racines would not say what her opinion on the land swap is.
The proposed swap outside Dayton in Sheridan County would involve trading 628.35 acres of privately-owned land and an additional $410,950 for 560 acres of state trust land about 10 miles away.
Ross Matthews is proposing the public land swap in return for land on his Columbus Peak Ranch. Matthews is the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sinclair Oil.
Matthews did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Cowboy State Daily.
The public land sits in close proximity to the Bighorn National Forest and is at the base of the Bighorn Mountain Range.
"It's absolutely gorgeous," said state Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, who has consistently opposed the land swap.
The private land is at a lower elevation and is more akin to traditional grazing land.
Most of the public comments made on the land swap in 2021 were in opposition to the transfer.
Rick Clark is a member of the State Lands Action Team, which has also opposed the land transfer. He said the state is not taking into consideration that the trust land has much higher quality recreation than the current ranch land.
"It's the most amazing place," Clark said.
In an October 2020 letter, the Wyoming Game and Fish determined the removal of the 560 acres would leave more than 2,000 acres of State Trust land still publicly accessible, part of a larger tract the proposed parcel sits within.
The department said the 560-acre parcel does not contain any crucial wildlife habitat. Game and Fish staff said the ranch parcel has the same species of whitetail and mule deer and antelope.
Clark and Western dispute this claim. They said there are a substantial amount of elk on the state lands, but none on the ranch lands.
There are no requirements that the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI) or the board have to specifically consider wildlife or recreational opportunities when considering the land transfer.
A June 2020 appraisal of the state lands determined a market value of $2,296,000, while the Columbus Peak Ranch property had a value of $1,885,050 at that time. The additional $410,950 payment from Columbus Ranch is intended to shore up this discrepancy. The liquid assets would be deposited into the Public Buildings at the Capitol and the Agricultural College Permanent Land Funds if the transfer is approved.
The swap is proposed to take place under the Wyoming Land Transaction Program (LTP), which exists to create a productive portfolio for the state to generate the maximum amount of revenue possible for its trust beneficiaries.
In October 2019, the Office of State Lands and Investments recommended approving the land swap. The office said the swap would improve the manageability of the land, consolidate owners, increase potential uses of the land and income generating potential for the state.
"This exchange appears to consolidate ownership patterns and allow increased road access to state trust land," OSLI writes in its 2019 report. "It is also anticipated that the exchange may result in greater value of the State's trust land corpus and expand possible future uses of the acquired parcel resulting in greater annual revenue to the State's trust beneficiaries."
The state's analysis of the proposed land exchange indicates potential for bigger future revenues from the private parcel and additional revenue from Matthews' one time payment.
Matthews argued in his 2019 application that the state could also generate higher grazing revenues by leasing out his ranch land than the current state trust land. He also said the appreciation on his land is significant.
Matthews also suggests public recreation will not be hindered by the swap, as his land is easily accessed by a county road. The trust land is much more remote and can only be reached by hiking over from an adjacent state trust land and through rugged terrain, a distance Clark says amounts to about 4-5 miles.
Matthews argued at prior board meetings this distance prevents most of the public from using the trust land. Clark argues this isn't true and said the fact that it's harder to get to is what makes it so special.
Matthews already owns most of the private land surrounding the public lands he wants to acquire. The Columbus Peak Ranch also adjoins state lands, which Matthews has argued is another benefit of the land transfer.
There is a reservoir known as Bearclaw Reservoir No. 1, located on both the trust land and Matthews' land, which would become closed to the public if the proposed transfer goes through. Clark said this water body is home to a sizable quantity of smallmouth bass that are particularly easy to catch.
"You throw a line and you've got a fish," Clark said.
The ranch land Matthews wants to trade also has a lake, but Clark argues it is not of equal quality.
The question of whether another appraisal should be performed has been one of the most controversial aspects of the swap. Traditionally, most real estate firms require appraisals to occur within six months of a property going on the market, Western said.
"What other purchase would you ever accept a three-year old appraisal?" questioned Sheridan rancher Kim Love. "It's inexcusable for the state to not update the appraisal."
OSLI staff did not respond to Cowboy State Daily's questions about submitting an updated appraisal.
There is no rule in the LTP process requiring more than one appraisal or additional appraisals if a certain amount of time has passed.
During the nearly three years since the appraisal was taken, there has been significant growth of the Wyoming real estate market due to COVID-19-related pressures and overall inflation.
The state land is being sold at a rate of $4,100 per acre. Love and Clark said ranch real estate in their region is going for as much as $10,000-$12,000 per acre.
"The value of ranch land has changed dramatically," Love said.
How It Works
Since 2006, the LTP has completed 80 transactions that have increased annual use revenue for the state by $295,057, deposited $83.5 million into the Common School Permanent Land Trust Fund and increased public access by 29,331 acres.
The school trust fund receives 86% of its revenue from state trust lands.
Although Western doesn't discount the value and legitimacy of these benefits, he believes the outdoor enthusiasts who use the public land still get a raw deal.
The rules of the LTP program state that each proposal will be reviewed by the Director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, Jenifer Scoggin. If the Director determines that a parcel may be suitable for acquisition or disposal, they will present the proposal to the Board of Land Commissioners for further consideration.
Before any public notice is made about an acquisition, the Board of Land Commissioners will then discuss the proposal in an executive session.
It is only when the board decides to move forward with the acquisition that the public is informed about the proposal.
"It's frustrating," Western said. "The process is inherently opaque."
The Board of Land Commissioners directed OSLI during an executive session at their Oct. 2, 2019 meeting to move forward with the proposal and complete a detailed analysis of the proposed exchange with public comments.
Public hearings and comments were not held on the Columbus Peak Ranch exchange until the spring and summer of 2021.
Western sees problems with the transparency of the LTP program, in that the greater public doesn't learn about an application until the approval process is nearly complete.
"The cake is already 80% baked by the time the public sees it," he said.
Although the land swap proposal was briefly discussed before the public during the Board's October 2019 meeting, official public notices were not sent out to the Sheridan County community on the matter until April 2021.
Western said Matthews has been following the rules of the program and has no issue with him on a personal basis. The Matthews family is well known for philanthropy, donating significant sums to the Rawlins community, which is located near the Sinclair refinery. Matthews is related to the Holding family, which owns the 29th most land in the United States, according to a 2019 USA Today story.
Western brought legislation last year that would have required public notice for any application submitted on a land exchange. The legislation passed but was vetoed by Gordon, who expressed concern that it would have a chilling effect on future transfer proposals and hinder the ability of the board to "effectively evaluate land proposals were one to be proposed."
The Board tabled discussing the land swap at meetings in August and October of 2021.
Over the 18 months that passed between that last meeting and the meeting on Thursday, Clark said his organization was in negotiation with Matthews. He said the two parties came close to reaching a deal that involved 40 fewer public acres being transferred to Mathews along with a private/public easement for access to the Bearclaw Reservoir, but the deal was never finalized.
"We were very close to coming to an agreement but then he never got back to us," Clark said. "We're open to negotiating."
Western said the land transfer process has improved since the 1990s but still has a long way to go as far as ensuring equitable access for hunters and recreationists.
He is planning future legislation that would eliminate or curtail the use of cash equalization on land swaps to bring two pieces of land into equal value.
"The problem with cash equalization is that it allows for equalizing on land that is not truly apples to apples," he said. "The cash equalization distracts from the truth and is not a true apples to apples exchange."
Western also wants to require as many as five different appraisals for any land transfer, as well as requirements for updated appraisals.
Although Western and Clark see Thursday's tabling as a temporary win, they are not sure what the future will hold.
"We have slowed that down for now and there's big questions remaining for the future," Clark said. "But it's worth fighting for."
Leo Wolfson can be reached at: Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com