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.
“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 email@example.com.