By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
I’ve been critical of our state leaders for keeping the public in the dark about nearly anything to do with the proposed purchase of 1 million acres of surface and 4 million acres of mineral rights of the checkerboard lands in southern Wyoming – a deal these same leaders said is “the largest government purchase of private land since the United States purchased Alaska.”
Our state leaders keep telling us that what a unique opportunity this deal is, and that the deal could be a “strategic investment” to add income to state coffers, and “unprecedented multiple-use access for the public.” But when it comes to specifics, they aren’t sharing much.
The lands involved in the deal are the checkerboard properties that Occidental Petroleum got when it acquired them from Anadarko Petroleum. The need-to-be-secretive nonsense rose to a new level this week as one legislator on the House floor cautioned other legislators not to say the names of the companies involved, instead saying something like “a company that begins with the letter A, that sold its assets to a company that begins with the letter O.” I’m not kidding; that actually happened on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, when the substantially revised House Bill 249 enabling the State Loan and Investment Board to pursue the deal came up for second reading on the House floor, Representative Albert Sommers (R-Sublette) proposed an amendment that would require the SLIB to hold at least one public meeting in a county where the purchase is located “to gather input prior to the purchase” being finalized. Sommers suggested state officials should hear from the public in the affected neighborhoods where the land is located.
Representative Tom Crank (R-Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta) spoke in support of Sommers’s amendment, noting that the land deal involves three counties in which he represents, “all of which have expressed concerns” about the deal.
Representative David Miller (R-Fremont) If we’re negotiating on this and all the sudden, we come to terms, and then we have to go have public meetings – that kills it, in my book.”
Representative Dan Kirkbride (R-Platte, Converse) suggested that from his recollection of the map of the properties circulating around the state house, some of the land is located in Laramie County, so when SLIB meets in Cheyenne, it’s fulfilling the purpose of Sommers’s amendment.
Representative Bob Nicholas (R-Laramie) spoke against the amendment: “I don’t think it’s our directive to tell the SLIB Board where they need to meet. I think we can recommend it. And my guess is they’ll do what they need to do, what they think is politically appropriate.”
Representative David Northrup (R-Park) also spoke against the idea: “My experience with these kinds of land deals and schools is as soon as you breathe a breath of where it is, that land around it, and that land, also become significantly higher priced. A public meeting would do nothing but jack the price up if you ask me, so I’m against it.”
Sommers responded: “We know where the land is; it’s the checkerboard.” Sommers said his amendment didn’t specify when during the process the meeting would have to be held, other than before the deal was finalized.
“You could go out right now and simply ask the residents in those areas to comment on a proposed purchase, and what may needed to be in that purchase to satisfy their concerns or wants,” Sommers said, adding that hearing from the public should be part of the state’s due diligence, and noting that his amendment was not onerous.
Sommers’ amendment for a public meeting was then promptly defeated on the House floor, and the bill passed second reading.
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.