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Gordon Says Final Closure Decisions Because Of Coronavirus Will Be Made Locally

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Posted by Governor Mark Gordon on Thursday, March 12, 2020

By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Decisions to close local facilities such as schools or cancel events in the face of the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 will be left in the hands of local officials, Gov. Mark Gordon said Thursday.

Gordon, speaking during a news conference, said while the state will work with local officials as they deal with the illness, the decisions on actions taken will be handled at the local level with input from the state.

“The Superintendent (of Public Instruction Jillian Balow) and I have both discussed the importance of local control on these issues,” he said. “We ask … that as decisions … are made that it be communicated with our office.”

“Every community has the capacity to make great decisions when done in conjunction with local, county and state health departments regarding closures, hybrid education, homebound education, etc.” Balow said.

However, Gordon also encouraged residents to carefully consider whether they want to proceed with plans to hold events that would be attended by large numbers of people.

“With an overabundance of caution and as a proactive measure to protect the residents of Wyoming, I am recommending that we consider carefully whether large community gatherings and events of over 250 people should take place,” he said. “We want to be proactive in our approach and I encourage anyone planning large events to contact their county health officers, to work with their elected officials to make sure their county officials are fully in that loop.”

Gordon’s news conference came one day after the state Department of Health announced that one Wyoming resident, a Sheridan woman, had tested positive for COVID-19.

It also came on the heels of decisions by the University of Wyoming. Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington and Northwest Wyoming College in Powell to extend their spring breaks by one week to give officials more time to determine how to respond to the coronavirus.

Also on Thursday, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department canceled the state Class 4A and 3A basketball tournaments in Casper, citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s health officer, said the state was not involved with the decision to cancel the tournament.

Gordon and other officials at the news conference stressed that the risk of the spread of coronavirus in Wyoming remains low.

“However, every state’s situation is different,” Gordon said. “At any given time, things are evolving rapidly.”

Gordon also announced that the Department of Health and Wyoming Office of Homeland Security were working to establish a “unified command center” where officials can coordinate planning and response efforts.

“We’ll be having all state agencies that will be working in support of this effort joining us there,” said Lynn Budd, the office’s director. “We’ll be having doing regular meetings. It’s just to establish a … ‘battle rhythm’ or a planning committee cycle so we’re all on the same page and we have all the information that we need. It helps to have everybody in one place.”

Gordon made a point during the news conference of urging people to follow the Health Department’s recommendations for preventing the spread of the illness, such as washing hands thoroughly, staying home if sick and avoiding sick people.

He also urged people to follow the state’s advice to have enough supplies at home for two weeks — within reason.

“We started this year talking about being two weeks ready,” he said. “Being two weeks ready does not mean you need to stock up on a year’s supply of toilet paper.

Gordon/Wyo Leadership: Million Acre Land Purchase Great for Wyoming

in Column/Mark Gordon
Mark Gordon file photo
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By Governor Mark Gordon, House Speaker Steve Harshman, Senate President Drew Perkins, and State Senator Eli Bebout

That is wise advice that we took to heart when we first became aware of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring lands in Wyoming into Wyoming hands. Occidental Petroleum recently acquired Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, a company that owned most of the original Union Pacific Land Grant (lands that were granted to the railroads during the Civil War).

Today, Wyoming has a unique opportunity to acquire them. These lands could be a strategic investment that will add income to the state and unprecedented multiple-use access for the public.

Over the next few years, Wyoming will face some hard choices about how we fund our schools and senior centers, how we maintain infrastructure like our sewer systems or irrigation canals, and how we continue to provide critical services.

It’s no secret that Wyoming has seen a significant dip in coal and natural gas production, illustrating how precarious our revenue streams are. Our latest estimates project state revenue dropping another $156.3 million over the next two years, and it is anybody’s guess where it will go from there. The state could see its existing deficit grow by $200 million. So why would we want to buy more land and minerals at this time? Well, because it could be an amazing investment, inflation hedge, chance to better secure our state’s future and can be bought at a particularly advantageous time.

Yes, Wyoming faces big challenges – challenges that must be met with big ideas and thoughtful solutions. Bills in the House and Senate that were introduced last week are meant to begin a thorough examination of a potential opportunity that might prove to be extraordinarily beneficial for Wyoming and her citizens.

The lands and minerals that President Lincoln granted to Union Pacific in 1862, six years before Wyoming became a Territory, helped finance construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and they play an historic role in how Wyoming became a state. They were and are some of the most mineral-rich lands in our country and they helped provide the resources to power locomotives across the West.

This railroad land grant surrounded the lands where train tracks were to be laid. Odd-numbered sections were given to the railroad while the federal government kept even-numbered plots. This checkerboard pattern extends 20 miles on either side of the Union Pacific railroad as it traverses the southern part of the state.

Today, this checkerboard pattern makes land management challenging and can hinder access, both for multiple-use and mineral development. Sections owned and managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management are intermingled with sections owned by Occidental Petroleum and other private landowners. The purchase we are considering seeks to acquire only the Occidental Petroleum lands that are for sale – no other private lands or federal lands are involved, as they are not for sale.

The asset totals around 1 million acres of surface lands and about 4 million acres of mineral ownership. It includes a majority mineral ownership underneath the world’s largest naturally occurring soda ash deposit, a bedrock of Wyoming’s economy. It also includes proven developed and undeveloped oil, gas and coal resources, significant grazing operations, potential for renewable energy development and future exploratory opportunities in everything from lithium to rare earth minerals. It is also home to some of our state’s most iconic game.

Activities on this land already provide current income and the promise for future revenue, which could yield stable cash flow and help diversify Wyoming’s revenue picture. A steadier income stream would be good for our schools and communities.

Wyoming is not looking at this purchase to try to become a developer or a mining company; rather, we see the land grant opportunity as a way for the state to expand the areas where we already have expertise: land and mineral management.

This opportunity is not just about the money. This acquisition has enormous potential benefits for multiple-use that are valuable to all citizens of Wyoming, giving us the opportunity to assemble one of the largest contiguous pieces of public land in the continental United States. One that will benefit wildlife, hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists while achieving responsible development of rich natural resources.

This potential acquisition, though, like any investment, is not without risk and we must weigh that risk carefully. Significant questions involving county property and ad valorem tax must be thoroughly explored. There is a lot to consider, and as of today there is still much to learn about the prospect.

The bills being considered by the Legislature lay out a process for the state’s elected leaders to thoroughly evaluate this opportunity and determine if it is a prudent investment. It will require significant due diligence and outside appraisal of the lands in question. If the investment doesn’t make sense, we will not proceed. Nothing is determined at this point.

We also recognize opportunities like this will not last forever. Passage of these bills will allow us to advance this unique opportunity if a purchase seems fiscally prudent. It is important to remember that a potential purchase of this magnitude must have legislative oversight and approval.

Opportunities like this don’t come along very often. The land grant has only changed hands twice in its 150-plus year history. It’s likely that this would be the largest government purchase of private land since the United States purchased Alaska. That’s a big deal.

But thinking big is nothing new to Wyoming. In 1968, Gov. Stan Hathaway and the state’s leaders stepped forward and levied the first severance tax on mineral production. In 1974, they did it again and created the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.

These examples of big thinking paid off for Wyoming, and it made us the envy of the nation. Now, we have the chance to do it again by making the best investment of all – in ourselves.

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