Controversial State Land Transfer In Sheridan County Killed By State Land Board

A 560-acre tract of pristine state trust land in Sheridan County will remain open to the public after the State Land Board on Thursday voted to kill the land swap. The meeting got off to a heated start with Chuck Gray and Megan Degenfelder exchanging barbs.

Leo Wolfson

April 04, 20249 min read

This 560 acres near the Bighorn Mountains is Wyoming state trust land.
This 560 acres near the Bighorn Mountains is Wyoming state trust land. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A 560-acre tract of pristine state trust land in Sheridan County will remain open to the public after a 3-1 vote by the State Board of Land Commissioners to deny a proposed land swap.

The owner of a local ranch had wanted to trade about 628 acres of his ranch along with some cash to the state for the state trust land sitting at the base of the Bighorn Mountains about 10 miles away.

The proposed transfer had been delayed for a fourth time by the board in December 2023 to get a third appraisal on the properties.

Rick Clark, a Sheridan resident and member of the State Lands Action Team, which has opposed the land transfer, told Cowboy State Daily he was pleased with Thursday’s result and didn’t expect the win going into the meeting, held in Casper. The last time the transfer had been discussed, the board had indicated more support for its approval.

“We’re ecstatic,” Clark said. “Just a few days ago I didn’t think we had a chance.”


State Auditor Kristi Racines made the original motion to reject the proposal, which was seconded by Secretary of State Chuck Gray.

When Racines made the motion, Clark said his jaw nearly dropped.

The rejection will not block the private landowner from proposing a different land exchange, but would have to completely restart the exchange process that has been underway since 2019.

Voting to reject the proposal with Racines was Gray and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder. State Treasurer Curt Meier voted in favor of the swap, while Gov. Mark Gordon abstained from voting.

Meier expressed concern about rejecting the proposed swap because that eliminates the possibility of compromise between the landowner, Ross Matthews, and the public. He also worried that Matthews could sell land he owns adjacent to the public land to a private buyer for a higher price than the state could offer and completely landlock the now-public land.

“I don’t want to take that risk,” Meier said.

Racines said she understood this concern, but mentioned how a push for a compromise had already been underway for years with nothing to show.

“It’s not worked and I do not have faith that it will work,” she said.

Local Opposition

Clark and others told the board members to consider that most of the general public opposed the transfer.

State Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, has vocally opposed the proposal, a position that has been shared by the rest of the Sheridan County legislative delegation. The county commissioners in Sheridan and Dayton Town Council also passed resolutions opposing it.

Cheyenne resident Marguerite Herman was the lone person besides Matthews to speak in full support of the land swap, saying it would be incredibly beneficial for education.

Proceeds from the sale would have gone to the University of Wyoming’s School of Agriculture.

Although it didn’t specifically oppose the transfer, three days after a public hearing in Sheridan where the transfer was overwhelmingly opposed, the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees voted in December to take a neutral stance on the transfer.

Dayton Mayor Clifford Reed implored the State Board of Land Commissioners to represent the public’s wishes on the land transfer at the meeting.

“I appeal to you today to represent the people up in Sheridan County, and specifically the people in the state of Wyoming,” he said, drawing applause from the audience.

A controversial land swap in Sheridan County calls for about 630 acres of private land, right, to be traded for 560 acres of state land near the base of the Bighorn Mountain, left.
A controversial land swap in Sheridan County calls for about 630 acres of private land, right, to be traded for 560 acres of state land near the base of the Bighorn Mountain, left. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

What’s It Worth?

In the newest appraisal of the two properties performed by a Cora appraiser, the state trust land was valued at $3.53 million while Matthews’ Columbus Peak Ranch land was appraised at about $2.98 million. This difference would be made up for and expanded on by a $545,000 cash equalization payment from Matthews.

Matthews offered to increase that to $840,000, and Meier indicated that offer could possibly grow to $880,000.

Including investment revenue, the land transfer would have resulted in $42,000 to $45,000 more of an annual return from the ranch land than the land the state now owns. It would also increase the total acres of land owned by the state.

“Most of you would rather have 10 times the investment that you have in your 401(k)s or your investments than what you are getting today,” Meier said.

Racines and Degenfelder said this was not enough to make the proposal worth it.

“It’s just not enough and that’s something we’re going to have to fully maximize if we’re going to have an irreversible portfolio of state lands,” Degenfelder said.


The private parcel is located closer to a county road, and would provide the public better access than what now exists on the state land.

But many have criticized the quality of the private land and how it offers reduced opportunities for hunting, fishing and hiking.

“People don’t want this land, it’s not desirable land,” Clark said.

Matthews had offered an additional carrot by continuing public hunting access on 80 acres of the property, and Meier went further, suggesting that a compromise could be crafted to protect public access to hunting and fishing on the entire parcel.

Matthews spoke little during the hearing, but said those opposing the land transfer are coming up with faulty arguments that have been consistently “debunked.”

The former chairman and chief executive officer of Sinclair Oil, Matthews is one of many wealthy Americans to buy large quantities of land in Wyoming.

“He’s going to want more land just as others like him have done,” Clark said. “And that’s OK, they didn’t get it from trading public land.”

Not Legal?

Clark also said he didn’t believe the land exchange was legal under state law for a few different reasons.

“The public will support you in voting this exchange down and you have the right to do that under statutory law,” Clark said.

He does not believe the transfer would make the land the state manages more manageable, is supported by a local need, better meets the multiple-use objectives of state trust land, or realizes a long-term benefit for the trust that exceeds the current benefits for continued state ownership.

“There is no clear long-term benefit to the trust,” Clark said.

Additionally on the state management piece, a neighboring landowner had recently offered an easement for state employees to access the trust land through property that adjoins the current state land offered for trade. The distance from the entrance to this property to the state land is about 0.3 miles.

Gray agreed with Clark’s arguments and said Wyoming needs to have a diverse set of investment classes.

“We need to diversify in the stock market and our land holdings do that,” Gray said. “It’s extremely important to diversify with equities being in a bubble in our country’s history.”

Meier said Wyoming’s stock investments are already diversified and performing well.

“I think that’s a straw dog that’s looking for a place to hunt,” he said.

Quality Of Appraisals

Clark believes the parcel was not properly appraised and should not have been appraised by the same person who appraised the Columbus Ranch land. It was Matthews who paid for these appraisals.

Dale Smith said this arrangement created the appearance of “sandbagging.”

“Yes, they’re professional, but they’re also working for you,” Smith said.

Gordon took issue with that comment, citing the professional and ethical standards that licensed appraisers must follow. Racines agreed.

“There can be legitimate, differing opinions on these exchanges without it being nefarious or unethical,” she said. “I find it really disappointing that what was ultimately a disagreement about whether we should move forward became a lot of slinging of accusations.”

Another concern expressed Thursday is that the state land could become a subdivision someday, which state staff had previously acknowledged as a possibility.

Dayton resident Lucinda Jann warned that if passed, the transfer could set a precedent for future transfers for luxury home construction in the future.

Some like Reed, the Dayton mayor, criticized the land transfer process as being opaque, which Gordon found fault with.

“The process is the process, the notification is the notification,” Gordon said. “We have provided a tremendous amount of opportunity.”

Gordon finished out the conversation by apologizing to Matthews for the rejection. He said there have been successful state land swaps performed in the past that have increased overall public access, and that the entire process shouldn’t be discredited because of the individual proposal.

Public Comment Or Not?

Things got testy between Gray and Degenfelder before the discussion even began earlier in the meeting when the board was trying to decide what order it would consider issues on its agenda.

Degenfelder and others had proposed moving the land transfer discussion ahead of another consideration for a controversial gravel pit in Casper, an issue which the majority of people in attendance were there for.

Gray vehemently opposed this consideration and speculated that the move was being offered to dilute public comment on the gravel pit issue.

Degenfelder, a Casper native, said she took offense to that.

“That kind of assertion I find offensive,” she said.

Gray attempted to respond but Gordon cut him off, ending the spat. Then the land transfer discussion was moved forward on the agenda.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter