Huge Swath Of Wyoming ‘Checkerboard’ Land May Be Up For Sale Again

Gov. Mark Gordon says he’s “interested in learning more” about huge chunks of land across southern Wyoming the state tried — and failed — to buy in 2020 that are for sale again.

Cat Urbigkit

July 11, 20234 min read

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Back in 2020, global asset management firm Orion Mine Finance agreed to buy more than 1 million acres of land and 4 million acres of mineral rights in Wyoming’s southern checkerboard from Occidental Petroleum for $1.33 billion, creating a company called Sweetwater Royalties to manage its new land grant assets.

Although the state of Wyoming had submitted a bid for the properties, it withdrew the bid in August 2020 when Occidental announced it had entered into a purchase agreement with Orion. Three years later, it appears that the company is now ready to put some of that property up for sale again.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Wyoming has again been approached about buying the land, according to a Tuesday statement from Wyoming Gov., Mark Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman.

“The state has been contacted by Sweetwater Royalties regarding the possible sale of parcels in the ‘checkerboard’ in Southwest Wyoming,” Pearlman said in a written statement to Cowboy State Daily. “At this time, the governor has indicated that he is interested in learning more about this potential opportunity, which is in the very early stages.

“If the state decides to move forward in evaluating the opportunity, the governor is committed to this being a fully transparent public process.”

In all, the Wyoming Checkerboard is about 50 miles wide and 150 miles long with 1-square-mile alternating sections of land ownership granted by Congress as a land grant for construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1867.

The 1-mile sections owned by the Orion subsidiaries alternate with lands held by the Bureau of Land Management and other properties.

This is a map of the land deal proposed in 2020, consisting of both surface and mineral estate:

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After buying the properties in 2020, Orion formed Sweetwater Royalties to manage assets now consisting of more than 4 million mineral acres and 1 million fee surface acres in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

The company is one of the largest landowners in the United States, with corporate offices in Lakewood, Colorado. In March, the company sold a 25% equity stake in Sweetwater Royalties “for a cash consideration of $221.6 million” to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

The company also created the foreign limited liability company, Aggie Grazing LLC, to manage its grazing assets.

A call to the company’s Lakewood headquarters found the answering machine full and unable to record additional messages, and Cowboy State Daily hasn’t yet received a reply to an email sent to the company Monday morning.

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The Original Deal

Above is a map of the current acreage held by Aggie Grazing in Sweetwater County.

The original deal with Occidental transferred ownership of 690,000 surface acres in Sweetwater County, 130,000 acres in Uinta County, 110,000 acres in Carbon County, 70,000 acres in Lincoln County, and smaller acreages in Albany and Laramie counties.

In mid-February 2020, the public learned the state of Wyoming had been holding closed-door meetings about the potential to buy more than 1 million surface acres and 4 million acres of mineral rights from Occidental Petroleum. Two days into the start of that year’s legislative session, two bills were filed that would have authorized the state’s top officials to negotiate what was then an undisclosed land deal for an unknown price.

Finally, five days later, Governor Gordon and legislative leaders held a press conference to announce the proposal.

It was subject to considerable controversy, with the Legislature eventually passing a bill authorizing Gordon to negotiate the deal and Gordon vetoing that legislation because of his view that the Legislature had overstepped on executive branch functions.

Eventually, the State Loan and Investment Board voted to proceed with a bid, but Wyoming lost out to Orion.

It is unknown the extent of the acreage being offered in the current land deal or whether mineral rights are included.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist