She may know not exactly when, but Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill said the state will sue the Bureau of Land Management over its controversial plan to manage 3.6 million acres in southwest Wyoming.
“We are following that, we are keeping up with that, we are interacting with the governor’s office related to that,” Hill told the Federal Natural Resource Management Committee on Monday about the potential for legal action over the plan. “But there will be a time for litigation regarding that, we just have to be patient to get to the right time for that.”
In October, the BLM announced an extension of the comment period on the controversial plan to Jan. 17, 2024. It had been set to close Thursday.
Hill said the state must do its due diligence by properly expressing its concerns to the federal government about the RMP before it can file a lawsuit.
“So, when we engage in that litigation, we’re in the best possible position to do so,” she said.
Low Staffing Makes It Harder
Along with high-profile litigation like for the potential BLM plan, the Attorney General’s office struggles filling open jobs, Hill said.
Over the past two years, Hill’s office has seen a vacancy rate of 8% to 20% just for attorneys. She said similar staffing shortages are similar in district attorney and public defender offices, as well as private law firms throughout the state. Hill said there has been a more than triple increase in the amount of attorney openings in Wyoming, with fewer attorneys available than in the past.
“There’s increased competition for quality attorneys to fill the positions within my office,” she said.
Hill is particularly concerned that many of the vacancies are within her office’s natural resource division that represents the Department of Environmental Quality, which she said undertakes a significant amount of her office’s litigation.
“As you know, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is very busy right now with the things that it is doing and some of that is contrary to what we believe are the interests of Wyoming,” she said.
Getting The Best
Another hurdle for Hill came from a decrease in the overall market rate for attorney pay, which affects the scale that the state of Wyoming can pay its attorneys. The midpoint salary for an entry level attorney in Hill’s office is $62,000 a year, while the midpoint for her most experienced attorneys is around $130,000.
“As far as … an expert I can keep in my office, that’s insufficient,” she said.
Although Hill can technically pay as much as $185,196, her budget doesn’t always allow that. She warned the committee that she may make a higher budget request in the future to achieve this flexibility.
Her office also is doing a study with Wyoming Administration and Information to better assess what attorneys in her office should be paid.
Hill said many of the younger attorneys she hires end up leaving quickly to pursue better opportunities, leaving her with a shortage of middle-career legal professionals.
“If I had no budget constraints, that’s what I’d want to do right now is fill my middle,” she said.
Only two attorneys in Hill’s office specifically handle natural resource cases. Although she stressed that her office is well positioned to handle any federal case that comes, she wants Wyoming to limit itself to lawsuits where it can make the most difference and build a reputation for only pursuing the most serious cases.
“It prevents us from diluting our brand,” Hill said. “If we’re suing over every little thing, at some point that becomes noise that in a lot of ways dilutes your brand in terms of Wyoming.”
Unlike other states, Hill said Wyoming does not contract out much legal work, but occasionally outsources for certain cases such as when the state and Montana sued Washington for denying a key permit to build a coal export terminal that would have sent Wyoming coal to Asia.
Hill said she tries to keep as much work as possible in-house to help with consistency and coordination.
“We believe we’re well positioned to undertake any federal litigation that may come,” Hill said.
State Sen. John Kolb, R-Rock Springs, criticized this approach, saying it’s unrealistic to hope that the state can find the best legal representation for every field.
“We’re risking billions and worrying about some $200,000 a year salary or, for that matter, $400,000 a year,” he said. “It becomes immaterial because the risk is too great.”
Kolb questioned Hill if she’s opposed to hiring more experienced outside legal counsel for specific needs related to fighting the federal government.
“Do you think we’re going to do the best job that we can with who we have, or do we have to go beyond what we have and try to find more resources to litigate this when the right time comes in the future?” he questioned.
Hill said she’s not opposed to hiring outside help for “extraordinary circumstances,” but that her office is already well-equipped to handle federal natural resource issues because of their knowledge on a wide breadth of federal regulations and laws. She also said she isn’t aware of many private attorneys in Wyoming that handle those issues.
Hill can also tap into the Federal Natural Resources Policy Account, which allows the governor on behalf of the state or local governments, to expend funds to help the state pursue litigation on a wide variety of federal natural resource issues.
In October, a state legislative committee passed a draft bill that would dedicate $50 million to helping Wyoming fight the RMP.
Changing The Narrative
Hill is aware of a popular narrative that it’s less honorable to work for a state government than for a private business. She wants to fight that perception and believes the top legal experts in the state are working, and should want to work, in her office.
“I need to be able to retain those experts, and what I’d like is to have a narrative that those people belong in my office,” Hill said.
Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, co-chairman of the FNRMC, commended Hill’s office for its work fighting a lawsuit to prevent oil and gas drilling in the southern Powder River Basin, a lawsuit where the state recently got a win when the judge blocked a temporary injunction request on the project.
“It was excellent work from your agency,” Boner said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.