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Cat Urbigkit: State Trust Lands Aren’t “Public” Land

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
wild horses
3155

By Cat Urbigkit, Cowboy State Daily Columnist

I’ve written several columns about the proposal under consideration by the legislature that would have the State of Wyoming investigate purchasing 1 million acres of private surface and 4 million acres of mineral rights in the checkerboard country of southern Wyoming.

Governor Mark Gordon and legislative leaders are pushing the idea to purchase the Anadarko assets now up for sale by Occidental Petroleum, and the two bills paving the way for the deal are House Bill 249 and Senate File 138. Both bills are winding their way through the legislature, with HB249 set to be heard by the Appropriations Committee on Monday Feb. 24th at noon. To listen to those deliberations, access the livestream here.

Most people I’ve talked to about this proposed land deal usually respond with “What the …” and “I thought the State was broke,” but some have expressed the view that it would be good to have more public land, more public access, more areas set aside for wildlife – as if state and federal lands are managed in the same way. They aren’t.

Trust Assets

When Wyoming became a state in 1890, the federal government granted it 4.2 million acres to be held in state trust to produce income to support public schools and other public institutions (such as the state hospital). The Wyoming Constitution and statutes require the State Board of Land Commissioners (the top five statewide elected officials) to manage trust assets for two purposes:

  1. Long-term growth in value; and
  2. Optimum, sustainable revenue production.

Management of state trust land is done in four primary ways (surface leasing, land transactions, mineral leasing, and royalty compliance) with the purpose of generating revenues in the form of rentals, royalties, and fees.

The land deal bills before the legislatures note that subject to exiting lease and contract rights (which the state can renegotiate), “all state laws governing the management of state lands shall be applicable to assets purchased” in this land deal. Let’s have a look at how state lands are managed.

Ag Use

For ag leases on state lands, grazing leases (for grazing livestock, raising crops, or other ag uses) are 10-year terms and are renewable. Existing state leases can be contested at the time of renewal.

Grazing rates are based on animal unit months and priced at a statewide 5-year average of private property leases less 20 percent (to reflect contributions typically provided as a part of a private land lease). State regulations set out the details of leases costs for crops and other agricultural uses.

Anyone proposing to enter state lands with an activity that will cause surface disturbance is required to contact the person holding the ag lease, and this lessee may negotiate a surface impact payment.

The state has a fee schedule for surface impact payments, and for the first $5,000, the lessee gets 40% and the state gets 60%. For the next $5,000, the lessee gets 30% and the state gets 70%. For everything over $10,000 the lessee gets 20% and the state gets 80%.

The public is not charged for recreational use of state trust lands, and likewise, holders of temporary use permits are not charged.

Not “public” lands

State trust lands are to be managed to produce revenue, so they aren’t comparable to federal “public” lands like that of the Bureau of Land Management that are to be managed under a multiple-use mandate. But the State Land Board has adopted rules allowing the “public the privilege of hunting, fishing, and general recreational use on state trust lands.”

Recreational privileges on state trust lands come with sideboards: the lands must be legally accessible, and off-road use, overnight camping, open fires, and anything else that would damage the property are prohibited on state trust lands.

So you can hike, fish, and play on state trust lands by day, but no camping, fire pits, or charcoal grills (except in camping areas established by State Land Board). Cultivated croplands on state trust lands are not open to public use.

The state may issue permits for furbearer trapping and outfitting/guiding on state trust lands, (either exclusive or nonexclusive), and outfitters may be allowed to establish camp sites on exclusive permits.

Some state trust parcels are closed to all public use, while others have seasonal restrictions on public use, or restrictions on the discharge of firearms, hunting, or the use of motorized vehicles.

Other Uses

About 1/3 of the 3.9 million acres of state trust land are leased for oil and gas development, and other acreages are subject to leasing for coal, uranium, trona, bentonite, precious minerals and stones, limestone, zeolite, and sand and gravel. The state also offers state trust land for commercial and scientific fossil exploration.

The Forestry Division of the Office of State Lands is responsible for managing about 263,000 acres of forested state trust land, including timber management and harvest on these properties.

With the dire lack of public information released about the proposed land deal, it’s no wonder the public is confused about what lands are included, and how it might be managed. If our state leaders have a vision for these lands, they certainly haven’t shared it with the public.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cat Urbigkit: Why the Lack of Transparency with the State’s Million Acre Land Grab?

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
Wyoming
3138

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

After Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds broke the story Monday afternoon that the State of Wyoming wants to purchase 1 million acres of checkerboard land in southern Wyoming, as announced in a press conference in Cheyenne with Governor Mark Gordon and legislative leaders, I checked the governor’s press release page and found nothing about this subject.

When nothing had appeared there by Tuesday morning, I emailed the governor’s communications director requesting a press release, and was told that one would be issued that day.

I asked to be sent the press release and was instructed to sign up online for updates, which I did. When the press release was posted late that afternoon, I did not receive it.

I checked the website again and found the press release which noted support for the two bi-partisan bills that would allow Gordon, the Attorney General, and the State Loan and Investment Board (SLB) to evaluate a land purchase “that could bring new income to the state, while benefiting public access for hunting and outdoor recreation, wildlife, and other economic interests.”

The press release glowingly noted that Senate File 138 was passed unanimously out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the other bill received strong support from the House on introduction.

I had already posted a column critical of the secrecy and lack of information about this enormous proposal.

The press release from the governor’s office provided few specifics: “The bills allow the State of Wyoming to enter negotiations for the purchase of a ‘checkerboard’ of 1 million surface acres of land in southern Wyoming that was part of the original land grant to Union Pacific when they built the railroad across the nation. In addition to grazing, hunting and outdoor recreation, the parcels include mineral development opportunities for coal, oil, gas, trona, and potentially some rare earth elements.”

The press release didn’t include a map, didn’t mention in what counties the land is located, and failed to mention that 4 million acres of mineral rights are part of the deal – including mineral rights in Colorado and Utah. The two bills that are receiving such wonderful support from our legislative leaders are even more vague.

The governor’s office press release notes that if the two bills are enacted by the legislature, state officials will be able to conduct a thorough vetting process on the and if the SLB approves the proposal as viable, the legislature would have 60 days to review the final package.

On Thursday, Feb. 20th,  WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham posted an article about the deal, “State could spend hundreds of millions on Occidental land.” The article was complemented with a map of the proposed land deal, provided to WyoFile from the governor’s office. That map still hasn’t been posted on the state website.

Graham’s reported that Gordon said he’s been talking with Occidental officials about the deal for six months, but Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said the talks began soon after Gordon was elected. Graham continued, “Even as the House and Senate voted to introduce the pair of bills last week, no word of the deal reached the public.

Some representatives told WyoFile that leadership discussed the House version during a closed door caucus last week without offering specifics, informing representatives details would emerge soon.”

Graham’s reporting was straight forward and provided a glimpse into the cost of the deal: hundreds of millions. But it failed to mention that two other bills have been filed that also directly apply to the deal.

As Reynolds reported on Monday, one of the bills would exempt the SLB from the state’s open meetings law, and another would expedite the process for state officials to conduct land swaps.

Governor Gordon had the opportunity to tell the people of Wyoming about this deal in his livestreamed State of the State address, but he didn’t. Two days later, the bills were filed.

Despite the near-unanimous support from legislative leaders, information about the specifics of the deal are being held close to the chest. The hypocrisy of Gordon mentioning his commitment to state government transparency in his State of the State address is not lost on me.

Gordon and his legislative enablers are controlling the narrative on this deal by controlling information. That may work in Cheyenne as state officials fast-track the legislation enabling the land negotiations through the 20-day legislative session. But out here in the rest of Wyoming, the lack of public information is accompanied by a stench of suspicion.

Want to get rid of the stink? Open the doors and operate in sunshine. The Wyoming public deserves far better than this.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Bill Sniffin: Wyoming Senate Race: Lummis, Friess in the News

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Wyoming sign
3132

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily Publisher

Former Wyoming U. S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis got some big endorsements this week in her race for the U. S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Mike Enzi.

And Jackson GOP Megadonor Foster Friess launched his statewide listening tour Thursday morning, concerning the same U. S. Senate race.

Lummis was endorsed by both current sitting senators, Enzi and Sen. John Barrasso.

“I served in the Wyoming House of Representatives with Cynthia Lummis,” Enzi said in the news release. “She was effective. I served in the Wyoming Senate with her. She was a leader and a successful legislator. When I came to the U.S. Senate, she became a world renowned State Treasurer, another area of expertise. Then she successfully ran for our lone seat in Congress.

“She was a formidable campaigner. She did a spectacular job for eight years and founded the Western Caucus that gave us the clout to preserve Wyoming’s Abandoned Mine Land (AML) money and much more. She is a uniter we need. Cynthia will put Wyoming first and be a force to be reckoned with in Washington.”

Meanwhile, Friess (who finished second in the GOP Gubernatorial primary in 2018) and is deciding whether to run or not in 2020, will be in four Wyoming cities Thursday, Feb. 20 and Friday, Feb. 21.

Friess said: “I believe that on many challenges we can find common-sense solutions behind which Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can unite. I’ve been asking Wyoming voters what they are looking for in their next Senator? Do they want a businessman who can’t be bought by special interests and will join President Trump in disrupting the status quo in Washington?”

Friess will be at Cody’s Irma Hotel at noon Thursday and the Wyoming Rib Shop in Gillette at 4:45 p.m. On Friday, he will host a town hall breakfast at 8 a. m. at Eggington’s in Casper and at the GOP Salute to Womens’ Suffrage Dinner that evening in Cheyenne.

As for Lummis, Sen. Barrasso said: “Now, more than ever, Wyoming needs a gritty champion for our conservative values, Filling Mike’s shoes is no small task, and taking on Washington’s big spenders and bigger government will require someone that has proven they can do it and win. Bobbi and I support Cynthia because she is all these things.

“I know Cynthia will stand side by side with me in support of President Trump and for policies that are right for Wyoming. I will work for her, vote for her, and fight alongside her.”

Lummis thanked Enzi and Barrasso. “Wyoming’s congressional delegation is truly the gold standard,” Lummis said. “Sen. Enzi and Sen. Barrasso are giants in the U.S. Senate and I am beyond honored to have their support. Should I be elected as Wyoming’s next Senator, I look forward to working side-by-side with Sen. Barrasso and Congressman Cheney on behalf of our great state.

Bill Sniffin: Craziness at Democrat Ground Zero in National Primary Election Action

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Democrat debate
3125

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily Publisher
 
LAS VEGAS – Wow, Bernie Sanders is taking a pounding here at Democrat Ground Zero. As a Wyoming Republican, this is my main takeaway in watching the national Democrat Party primary election campaign.
 
In the winter, we keep our motorhome in Las Vegas and we recently spent some time there getting away from the snow and cold.
 
We were not the only ones. We were joined in Sin City by all the Democrat candidates. So, what are my conclusions from experiencing this?
 
First, the candidates have been ganging up on Vermont Sen. Sanders.  The 78-year old Independent, running as a Democrat Socialist, won the New Hampshire primary and finished a close second in the Iowa Caucus. Sanders is a big target and Democrat groups are running ads really knocking him.
 
In an ironic twist, most ads argue that the stubborn Sanders is just like Trump, the arch-nemesis of the Democrats. Although the Democrats are claiming unity in their joint desire to defeat the incumbent, the gloves have come off. It is already past the middle of February and no clear-cut front-runner has emerged, with the possible exception of Sanders.
 
Brian Greenspun of the Democrat Las Vegas Sun called Sanders “a party outsider and culture warrior,” which was not a compliment in a city where 60,000 people belong to the Democrat-leaning Culinary Union, alone.
 
We saw just about every Democrat TV ad possible.  This race sure looks a lot different than it looked just before Iowa and New Hampshire.
 
All candidates are spending tons of money on TV ads but billionaire Tom Steyer is spending the most. He will finish strong in Nevada, we predict.
 
Meanwhile, off in the distance, you see billionaire Mike Bloomberg spending hundreds of millions of dollars in other states. He has also hired some of the best talent in the USA in the states where future contests will be contended.
 
My prediction is that come November, folks will be voting between President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence against a Democrat ticket of Sen. Amy Klobuchar and her vice-president candidate former Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
 
My main reason for anticipating a Klobuchar-Buttigieg ticket is that at some point Democrat voters just might come to their senses when it comes to trying to win a national general election.
 
And another thing, why do all these young Democrat voters support folks so old?  Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Mike Bloomberg are too old to be Baby Boomers, for heaven’s sake.  They are not so old as to be members of the Greatest Generation, but they might be close.
 
Our nation has elected four Baby Boomer presidents over the last 27 years. Surely the party leaders in the Democrat Party can visualize how potentially feeble a ticket featuring former Vice President Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or former Mayor Mike Bloomberg would look.
 
Often in primaries, the candidates tilt far to the left in the Democrat Party and far to the right in the Republican Party. But the extreme ideas being promoted by the Democrat Far Left by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are so out of the mainstream that they make these candidates unelectable in a general election.
 
Critics say what Sanders and Warren are promoting is nothing short of the Venezuelation of America.
 
Plus their approval of late term abortions, super severe limits on environmental issues, and active promotion of Socialism may garner votes in primaries but cannot muster the support to beat President Donald Trump in a general election.
 
I have lots of Democrat relatives and they think Wyoming’s pro-Trump tendency is crazy. They absolutely despise this president. Their only goal is to replace Donald Trump. Period. But they also worry about their ultimate ticket going forward.
 
To their credit, my kid sister Marybeth and my kid brother Jim and their spouses worked hard for the more reasonable Klobuchar during the recent Iowa caucuses. The Minnesota senator finished fifth. Buttigieg and Sanders pretty much tied, with Warren coming in third and Biden coming in fourth.
 
In New Hampshire, again Sanders and Buttigieg topped the ticket but Klobuchar surged to third while Warren and Biden faded.
 
Klobuchar has been endorsed by the Las Vegas Sun in Nevada and the New York Times on the bigger national stage.
 
A Klobuchar-Buttigieg ticket would have an uphill battle against Trump-Pence but at least they would have a fighting chance. The Democrats pushing the radical Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “Green New Deal” agenda along with the Greta Thunberg extreme environmentalism, well, they just have too high a mountain to climb to convince enough independent voters across the USA to win the general election.
 
So what happens if the candidates get to their national Democrat convention without a clear winner?
 
The smart folks in the national Democrat Party already realize that all those voters on the two coasts are locked in.  By putting up two Midwesterners like Klobuchar and Buttigieg as their candidates, they have a chance of winning Midwestern battleground states that had earlier supported Clinton and Obama but favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
 
A ticket of Midwesterners would give the Democrats a fighting chance of winning the election.  And although Klobuchar and Buttigieg have both offered a few far left ideas, they are viewed as middle of the road.  This supposedly could appeal to independents and to Democrats who either stayed home last time or even took a chance on voting for Trump.
 
My aforementioned sister is a newspaper publisher in eastern Iowa and she recalled the problems with the Hawkeye State caucus effort.  She said her local caucus was led by an 80-year old gentleman who made it clear he was not going to use some “app” on his phone to report their results. He planned to do it like they always did it – he was going to phone it in. 
 
Iowa has 1,681 precincts and its state Democratic Party only had 16 phone lines ready to take results. Not sure they ever got all the results.  What a fiasco!
 
With the above said, the 2020 presidential race is Trump’s to lose. It is really hard for an incumbent president to lose in this modern era. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all won second terms.  And it sure looks like Donald Trump will win a second term, too.
 
In the face of that inevitability, the only chance the Democrats may have is putting up a ticket like Klobuchar-Buttigieg. You read it here first.
 
Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

Cat Urbigkit: Quickly and in Darkness, Wyo Gov’t Works to Buy 1 Million Acres

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Government spending/News/politics
Wyoming
3103

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

I listened attentively to Governor Mark Gordon’s live-streamed State of the State address on Monday, Feb. 10. There was no mention of a proposal for our state government to purchase 1 million acres of private land in southern Wyoming in that address.

Two days later, on Feb. 12, two polished bills were filed in the Wyoming Legislature that would allow our state’s top officials to negotiate an undisclosed land deal, for an unknown price. 

Governor Gordon and our legislative leaders held a press conference on Monday, Feb. 17 in Cheyenne to announce the proposal – a full week after that live-streamed State of the State address.

Fortunately Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds was able to attend the press conference, because his breaking news article announcing the proposal is all we have to go on.

According to the article, the deal involves 1 million acres of private land and 4 million acres of mineral rights along the I-80 corridor that is held by Occidental Petroleum in an area of checkerboard land ownership.

This deal “would be part of an effort to improve public land access and generate revenues from its sale.”

Our state leaders called this a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity “to improve the state’s ability to raise revenues” according to the article.

For some, the thought of 1 million acres of private land being gobbled up by government – in a state that is already majority-owned by government – is a hard pill to swallow. Perhaps that’s why the legislation proposes to establish “payment in lieu of taxes” to local governments for loss of private lands from the tax rolls.

The proposed legislation also says “all state laws governing the management of state lands shall be applicable to assets purchased” so at least we know that the land could be subject to multiple uses. 

Another bill, House Bill 37, would expedite the process for the exchange of state lands for the purpose of public access to state lands, and this is also part of the legislative bundle to enable this land deal.

Reynold’s article also tells us that yet another bill, House Bill 222 would exempt members of the State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) from provisions of the state’s public meetings law “which could be used to investigate details of the purchase prior to pursuing it.”

I’m glad Reynolds noted that because I had no idea that was the purpose when I read the bill itself. All the proposed bill says is that the SLIB board is exempt from the public meetings law “when meeting solely for the purpose of receiving education or training provided that the board shall take no action regarding public business during the meeting.”

Although this proposal has been worked on for months, according to Reynold’s article, the public became aware of it only yesterday.

The proposal, and the legislation enabling it, are being fast-tracked during this 20-day legislative session so that the deal can be negotiated this summer and perhaps completed by the end of the year. The Governor’s office has promised to issue a press release about the proposal later today.

I looked at the records on land parcels in Carbon and Sweetwater counties and when I searched for Occidental, got no results. Then I remembered that Occidental now owns Anadarko and that’s how the county GIS data lists the parcels.

Since we know very little about this whole deal, we can only assume it’s some of the parcels we’ve included in the screen captures accompanying this column. If you want a closer look, go to the GIS systems of Sweetwater County, and Carbon County and type “Anadarko” into the search engine.

It appears that some of the land in the deal is located in Colorado and Utah, and legislation allows for the sale of those parcels.

House Bill 249 would allow investment of unknown but substantial amounts of state funds for the deal, and Senate File 138 does the same. The fiscal notes for both bills are identical:

“The fiscal or personnel impact is not determinable due to insufficient time to complete the fiscal note process.

“This bill authorizes real property purchases from the following sources:

 The Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA)

The Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund

The Common School Permanent Land Fund and 

Other unobligated unencumbered funds to the State Loan and Investment Board or to the Board of Land Commissioners.

There is appropriated funds necessary from the State Building Commission Contingency Account.

There is appropriated funds necessary from the LSRA.”

I know that there needs to be some level of confidentiality in land purchases. But the State of Wyoming’s cavalier attitude that we the public should just trust our state leaders isn’t enough when it comes to this big of a deal. 

Let’s shine some light on our government. If the State wants us to go along on this land deal, then sell it to us.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Dave Simpson:An Old Reporter Checks Out the New Capitol

in Column/Dave Simpson
State Capitol
3121

By Dave Simpson, Cowboy State Daily columnist

My, how things have changed at the Wyoming State Capitol over the 38 years since I spent time there.

For four years in the early 1980s, I was part of the Casper Star-Tribune team that helped our Cheyenne bureau chief (the truly amazing Joan Barron)  cover the bases during legislative sessions. It was a fun opportunity for editors to be reporters again.

These days, reporters are covering the news from up in the balconies surrounding the House and Senate. Back in the old days, we got to sit down on the floor, close to the lawmakers. In the House, there was a table to the left of the Speaker’s desk. In the Senate, our table was to the right of the Senate President’s desk.

There we were, right in the thick of things. (Lawmakers got a little ringy toward the end of sessions, and one year a senator from Casper hit me with a piece of Jolly Rancher candy as I sat at the reporter’s table on the final evening. Funny stuff. Everyone was tired and ready to go home.)

The great access began to unravel while I was there. A radio reporter from Cheyenne insisted on filling his coffee mug – about the size of a Big Gulp – from the urns in the doughnut room, draining them dry. Some reporters may have been chowing down on too many doughnuts. (Not me.) We were summarily banned from the doughnut room, and reimbursed for the money we had paid into the doughnut fund.

I also heard that the Cheyenne radio reporter was ambushing lawmakers as they came out of the bathrooms off the House and Senate floors, sticking a microphone in their faces for surprise interviews. Not good.

Not long after that, our access to the floor was limited to the press tables, and we had to be invited to visit lawmakers at their desks. Today, I noticed a couple of young reporters doing their work right beside me in the House gallery. No more press tables on the floor.

Another big difference today is that everyone, EVERYONE, has a computer.

Lawmakers all have laptop computers, which they peruse as the process of introducing, amending and deciding the fate of bills drones on. Up in the gallery, the reporters sitting next to me took their notes on laptops as well. And folks in the gallery could be seen peering into their cell phones every few minutes.

It wasn’t that way in the ’80s. For the first couple years, it was all taking notes in reporter’s notebooks, then scurrying up to the third-floor press room to write our stories on clunky, unreliable desk-top terminals.

When you finished a story, you took your life in your hands and hit the “send” button to send your work to the office in Casper. One Saturday I wrote four stories, and every one of them was lost in transmission. (I think they disappeared somewhere between Wheatland and Glendo.)  An entire day’s work, gone, and I was wastebasket-kicking mad.

In 1983, however, along came the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100. The paper equipped us with the $1,000 early laptops, and suddenly we were able to listen to the debates in the House and Senate, and write our stories right at the press table. And you still had a copy of your story if something went haywire in the transmission process.

The TRS-80, while revolutionary, was primitive. It had 8 kilobytes of memory. (My computer-savvy son laughs at the notion of 8 kilobytes.)

Our “Trash-80s,” as we called them, were so primitive that much of the software was written by a guy named Bill Gates.

“Part of my nostalgia about this machine,” Gates said in an article I Googled, “is this was the last machine where I wrote most of the percentage of the code.”

When we started using our TRS-80s, suddenly the lawmakers were coming up to our press table to see what we were doing. (They didn’t need an invitation to visit our desk.) Our equipment was that new, and ground-breaking.

Today, all that has changed, and everyone has at least one computer on their desk, and a cell phone in their pocket. And I’m guessing that news stories don’t disappear between Wheatland and Glendo anymore.

They say that if you get an old reporter talking, he or she will talk longer than you want to listen. So, I’ll end with this.

In an age when national politicians call folks “lying, dog-faced pony soldiers,” a visit to the Wyoming Legislature will lift your spirits. I highly recommend it. All the lawmakers seemed to be at their desks and paying attention to the process. Good humor was evident, as even the opposing parties seemed to be getting along, at least for the moment.

And there’s this. The newly-renovated Wyoming State Capitol building is, in a word, spectacular. The old Supreme Court Chambers are fully restored. The House and Senate chambers are stunning, faithfully brought back to their original grandeur.

The entire renovation process was first class in every way. (I think Esther Hobart Morris belongs out front, where she used to be, but the statue still looks great in the lower-level concourse.)

You hear a lot of talk in legislative sessions about living up to the ideals and virtues of our forefathers. Wyoming’s restored Capitol building is a true testament to our state’s amazing brick-and-mortar commitment to our roots.

Every Wyoming resident can be proud of our beautifully-restored Capitol.

Dave Simpson

Dave Simpson began his journalism career at the Laramie Boomerang in
1973. He has worked as a reporter, editor, publisher and columnist at
newspapers in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska. He lives in
Cheyenne.

Cat Urbigkit: The Fighter Leading the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
Aurelia Skipwith
3091

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director (FWS) Aurelia Skipwith’s recent address at a meeting of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) convention in Arizona gave reason for conservatives to cheer in hope – and for liberals to cringe in despair and send out fundraising letters in outrage.

Skipworth was confirmed as FWS Director in December 2019, and her unannounced visit to an ASI committee meeting has not been covered in depth by any media outlet. {It’s a sheep industry convention, so who would want to cover that? Answer: Yours truly, apparently the only media rep in that particular committee meeting.}

For a quick rundown on Skipwith’s bona fides, know that she got a bachelor’s degree in biology from Howard University before obtaining a master’s degree in molecular biology from Purdue, and a doctorate from the University of Kentucky’s College of Law.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Director Aurelia Skipwith

She’s been involved in using scientific advances to improve agricultural output and feed humans around the globe as co-founder of AVC Global (an agricultural value chain company), and in roles at Alltech, US Agency for International Development, Gage International, US Foreign Agricultural Service, and Monsanto (crop sciences).

Skipwith came to the Department of the Interior in the Trump Administration as deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife, and parks. Skipwith’s fiancé is a member of a longtime sheep-ranching family from the southeastern Montana’s metropolitan region of Alzada (population about 30).

Speaking to a group of our nation’s sheep producers, Skipwith focused on the importance of private lands, and working with landowners and state agencies in conservation efforts.

“We believe in property rights, and landowner rights,” she said. “We understand about keeping working lands working.” With 80 percent of the habitat for the nation’s 1,600 imperiled species found on private land, Skipwith noted that effective conservation comes from engaging with people who work the land and accommodating the needs of people while working to conserve wildlife.

FWS is the federal agency charged with conserving threatened and endangered species, but also manages the national wildlife refuge system, significant fisheries, and migratory birds.

Skipwith cited regulatory changes to the Endangered Species Act rolled out by her agency last year as part of an overall effort to provide regulatory predictability.

“We want to make sure that they are clear and effective, and that they do not impose undue burdens to people on the ground,” she said. Skipwith said that her agency’s decisions need to be based on sound science, the rule of law, and common sense.

“We are committed to strengthening and expanding our array of tools and incentives” for working with landowners, Skipwith said, including seeking out innovative partnerships for species conservation.

Last year’s regulatory changes were a start. “That was just the first traunch,” Skipwith said.“We have more that are coming.”

“I’ve been at the department for about three years now, and one thing that I can tell you I get tired of seeing on a regular, everyday basis, is the same cadre of environmental groups that come to say that we’re not doing something right,” Skipwith said. “They are constantly filing lawsuits – which does nothing but waste taxpayer dollars. They are making law firms rich, and they are funding these liberal extremist groups. And I will say that it does nothing for the environment, it does nothing to protect our species, and it does nothing to protect the habitat on which they depend.”

“When we make our announcement to delist, I know that in less than a day, there will be a lawsuit announced that the species needs to stay on the Endangered Species list,” she said. “That was not the intent of the Endangered Species Act. Getting a species off the list is something that should be celebrated, not something that should be followed with a lawsuit. I find that absolutely disgusting, at the end of the day.

“So I can assure you that we will fight the extremist groups that constantly file these lawsuits because the decisions that we make at the Department Of the Interior are based on sound science, and are based on the rule of law,” she said. “I know that’s one of the reasons that the president nominated me: because I am willing to fight.”

“I am keenly aware of the threats that is posed by extreme environmental groups, but I am also aware of the threats that large predators can pose to your livelihood as well,” she said. “I want to make sure that our position is clear: The grizzly bear has been recovered. The science shows that and we will fight to make sure that it’s delisted.

“We also believe that the gray wolf is biologically recovered and that is why it should also be removed from the list,” she said. “That is another success of the Endangered Species Act, but like the grizzly bear, due to litigation it still remains either federally listed as threatened or endangered, and so we are working really hard to make sure we can get it off the list.”

Skipwith received a standing ovation at the conclusion of her remarks.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Bill Sniffin: Old Pilot, New Jet Planes Meet-Up at Quiet Airfield

in Bill Sniffin/Column
3078

By Bill Sniffin

There are old pilots. There are bold pilots. There are NO old bold pilots. – old flyer saying

One of the curses of being a private pilot for 30 years is a bad habit called “airport bumming.” This is where, even when you are not flying anymore, you tend to like to hang around airports.

Wyoming is full of wonderful airports for us older flyboys.  I tend to like the smaller ones like Evanston, Rawlins, Worland, Sheridan, Hulett, Lander and the old one at Thermopolis.  Bigger ones with scheduled airline service are fun, too, but have much higher security in place.

Not long ago, we found ourselves in Washington State visiting our son Michael, his wife Lisa, and their four children.

They live in a little town called Warden just south of Moses Lake where we stayed at a motel. Inevitably I started gravitating toward the local airport, which has the distinction of being perhaps the biggest airport in the country without regular airline service.

But, wow, did I get an eyeful as we drove out to Grant County International Airport.  Almost as far as the eye could see were 221 Boeing 737 Max airliners, lined up, and stacked almost on top of each other.

It appears that since Boeing (which originally started as a Cheyenne company) kept making the ill-fated 737 Max models in Seattle, even though they were grounded, needed some place to store them.

Moses Lake was famous during World War II for storing bombers and training bomber pilots. It has the second longest runway west of the Mississippi River. Vandenberg AFB in southern California is the only one longer. Both were certified as landing sites for the NASA shuttle program.

The planes stacked up in Moses Lake were valued at $6 billion.  The tails and paint schemes were impressive.  I was able to get pretty close and snap some videos and photos. These airliners are scheduled for delivery to just every continent.  Many were headed to India and China and a bunch were colorfully painted with African paint schemes.  One was reportedly earmarked for an Arab sheikh.

Later on I chatted with some weekend staff hanging around in the main terminal. They said the first 737 Max flew in and damaged its engines because of the volcanic residue left over on the pavement from the 1980 eruption of nearby Mount St. Helens.

Boeing immediately instituted a vacuuming plan where every inch of the vast aprons were scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed again. One janitor in the terminal laughed that you could eat off those pavements.  The subsequent jets were flown in and then the engines were shut off immediately. Then the planes were towed into place. The engines all had elaborate covers on them.

The airport was famous during World War II for the way they stored bombers.  They were put in a “Christmas tree” formation, which maximized how many planes could be stored there.

The reason the 737 Max was grounded was because two planes crashed, one in Ethiopia and one in Indonesia. In both cases the pilots had little experience with 737s and the new computer system caused them to make the wrong decisions killing everyone aboard on both planes. It is assumed that American pilots, who have lots more experience with the regular 737, did not have similar problems.

Originally, the “fix” planned for the planes called for each plan to be jacked up off the ground and the engines fired up.  Then the techs will “fool” the plane’s computer into thinking it is flying and then tweak its program to eliminate the glitch.  Once was done, the plane would have been given a test flight and then flown off to its original customer

The whole 737 Max fiasco cost the Boeing Company its CEO and probably billions of dollars.  But the  $80 million (each) planes are hoped to be flying again by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, I had wandered over to a different part of the Moses Lake airport where a giant bright red 747 was parked. It was being retrofitted with some different kinds of engines. Not sure what its ultimately use was going to be. 

So far, there is just one 747 being used as a fire retardant bomber. Maybe that one was going to be the second one?

Our Washington stay was brief and soon we were back in Wyoming. If you see some guy wandering around your local Cowboy State airport, it probably is some old pilot.  It could be me.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

Dave Simpson: I’ve Got Just the Solution for UW President

in Column/Dave Simpson
University of Wyoming
3027

By Dave Simpson, Cowboy State Daily columnist

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight.

About a year ago, trustees from the University of Wyoming got on a plane and flew down to Arizona to interrupt the university president’s vacation with the news that they wouldn’t be renewing her contract.

Surprise! Enjoy the rest of your vacation!

A lot of us were surprised. I think most of us figured Laurie Nichols had been doing OK under some pretty tough conditions, cutting approximately $42 million out of  the university budget in the three years she had been on the job.

We figured Nichols was likely to continue at UW, and maybe things were finally settling down over in Laramie.

When the news hit the papers that Nichols would not be offered a new contract, the reasoning was treated with Manhattan Project-type secrecy. The stories about her ouster made it clear that whatever happened regarding Nichols was one of those personnel matters that qualify for Area 51-type confidentiality.

Some news organizations took UW to court to release details, and that dragged on for almost a year. While that was going on, it was reported that UW had hired a company from Colorado to investigate Nichols, and what they found led to the trustees’ decision.

A judge in Laramie ruled that UW couldn’t keep everything secret. And while UW officials thought about appealing that decision, they ultimately released some details.

They claim there were numerous complaints about Nichols’ management style. She made people feel bad when she chewed them out. One staffer said she threw up all weekend after Nichols criticized her. Nichols allegedly was upset by an international student who helped cater an event at Nichols’ home, and didn’t like Nichols’ dog. We’re left with the image of a short-fused diva who made people throw up.

Nichols, who is now president of Black Hills State University in South Dakota, says that when you cut $42 million out of a university budget, there will be some unhappy campers. And, she says, the UW trustees never let her know about the complaints against her, which violates their own personnel policies. She never got a chance to improve her performance.

Meanwhile, the obligatory “nationwide search” is going on to find the next president of UW, with the help, of course, of consultants. But you have to wonder about anyone who would want the job. The guy two presidents before Nichols lasted six months. The trustees had Nichols investigated without telling her. And they canned her while she was on vacation. Doesn’t sound like the best university president gig out there, if you ask me.

Who do we believe? Nichols? The trustees? The faculty? The food service employee who doesn’t like dogs? The person who threw up all weekend?

I write this as a guy who spent two years at the University of Wyoming (eighth floor of Orr Hall one year, fourth floor the second), but went on to graduate from a small college in Wisconsin. My wife has an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from UW. My daughter and her husband have degrees from UW. My first newspaper job was at the Laramie Boomerang. We all love Laramie, root for the Cowboys, and have fond memories of UW and the Buckhorn Bar.

That said, I have a suggestion. I think one of our former governors should be asked to take one for the home team, become university president for a few years, and get things settled down over there.

I’ve never met Dave Freudenthal, but he’s got the kind of common sense that would give us confidence that a steady hand was at the tiller, and we could trust whatever he had to say. He’s a Democrat that even Republicans (like me) kind of like. And he looks like he might have some good years left in him.

I met Mike Sullivan once, years before he became governor, and I think he’d make a good choice for this special assignment as well. Again, a common sense, even keel, honest guy.

As a retired guy myself, I’d hate to ask anyone to give up the absolute wonderfulness of retirement. But it seems to me they could do a lot to get the university we all love through these rocky times.

Cat Urbigkit’s Legislative Preview: State Land Transfers, Wolves, Brucellosis

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
3007

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The Wyoming Legislature is slated to begin its 2020 session on February 10. It’s a budget session, with a 24-day schedule and adjournment slated for March 12. With about 250 bills prefiled, readers are encouraged to browse the bills on the legislative website and contact their legislators to discuss their views.

Here’s a sample of what is being proposed.

House Bill 5 would give drivers the option of paying an additional $20 for a digital driver’s license and identification card. The applicant would be able to provide this digital license upon being stopped by an officer.

House Bill 13 would establish a sage grouse mitigation credit program to be administered by the state board of land commissioners.

House Bill 22 would prohibit counties, towns and cities from requiring allocations of affordable or workforce housing as a condition of development.

House Bill 28 would prohibit governmental entities from operating or participating in firearm buyback programs.

House Bill 33 would increase production requirements to $3,000 for land to be qualified as agricultural land for taxation purposes.

House Bill 35 would provide $90,000 for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to develop a compensation program for wolf depredation on livestock in the area of the state where wolves as classified as a predatory animal.

House Bill 37 would allow the Wyoming State Land Board to develop an expedited process for the exchange of state lands (initiated by the lessee of the state lands) for private lands on a value-for-value basis, for the purpose of facilitating legal access to state or federal land.

House Bill 99 would allow livestock producers whose animals were quarantined for brucellosis containment efforts to submit a claim to the Wyoming Livestock Board for actual expenses related to the quarantine.

This bill is especially timely in that federal animal health officials switched their brucellosis testing protocols last fall, and the result was that producers in Montana and Wyoming experienced an elevated number of brucellosis reactor-level test results.

Of the 80,000 head of cattle tested for brucellosis in Wyoming’s fall run, there were 25 cattle in 16 total herds that were found to be “non-negative” for brucellosis. Those herds were then quarantined, but follow-up testing allowed quarantines to be lifted on 11 of the 16 herds.

According to Wyoming State Veterinarian Dr. Jim Logan, in late January there were still three Sublette County cattle herds, and two Park County cattle herds, remaining under quarantine.

A Senate bill (Senate File 6) proposes to allow state transportation officials to establish a tolling authority for Interstate 80 has been filed.

The Joint Judiciary Interim Committee has proposed putting some teeth into the state Ethics and Disclosure Act. Senate File 9 would expand the scope of the existing ethics law to cover local governmental entities and state employees, and substantially increase penalties for violation of this law.

Those convicted of using public office for private benefit, or of misusing the office, would be subject to penalties of up to fines of up to six months imprisonment and $750 for misdemeanor violations (where the total value of the benefit was less than $1,000), or imprisonment of up to 10 years and $10,000 for felony violations (wherein the total value of the benefit was $1,000 or more).

The Joint Education Interim Committee has proposed changes to the state law regarding student absenteeism and truancy. According to the revisions proposed under SF15, any parent, guardian, or custodian of a child violating compulsory attendance rules could be fined up to $150, and a child subjected to willful absenteeism is defined as a “neglected child” pursuant to the Child Protection Act.

Senate File 31 would require the University of Wyoming to prepare a yearly report on the land grant mission of the university, reviewing its ag department budget, accomplishments, and staffing and the benefits of the college to Wyoming’s agricultural economy.

Senate File 75, sponsored by the Select Water Committee, would change the process for applications for instream flows. Under the proposal, upon receiving an instream flow recommendation from the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) would file for a permit for instream flow, to be followed by a public meeting in the local area. The WWDC could then select the instream flow segment for further study, or may disqualify that segment and withdraw the application. Interestingly, the bill notes that any selection or disqualification “shall be specifically exempt from all provisions of the Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act” so that the final WWDC is final and not subject to appeal.

Senate File 81 would allow for livestock brand renewal up to a period of 50 years (up from the current 10-year maximum).

Senate File 83 would amend existing law regarding budget and financial data reporting to require financial transaction information to be published on the internet – not just for state, county, and municipal governments, but for all special districts, airport boards, and any other political subdivisions.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

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