In Wyoming, a cautious public lands victory

Grassroots efforts to fight land transfer bills have succeeded — for now.


On Jan. 20, public lands advocates across Wyoming celebrated a tenuous victory. In a move somewhat overshadowed by inauguration coverage, Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout killed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have laid the groundwork for potential future transfers of federal lands to the state, citing doubt that the bill would have earned the necessary votes. Then, just ten days later, Wyoming House Majority Floor Leader David Miller filed another transfer bill, the latest in a spate of “land-grab” bills that have galvanized opposition among Wyoming sportsmen and conservationists.

Since 2013, the state legislature has considered a total of nine different transfer-related bills, including ones proposing the transfer of federal lands to state or private hands, calling for related studies, or detailing the processes for the sale and management of transferred land.

The crowd gathered for a public lands rally in Casper, Wyoming.

Those bills have been introduced against a backdrop of mounting debate over federal land management throughout the West at the state and federal level. In recent weeks, the U.S. House passed a rule package that included a provision making it easier to sell off federal lands and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced both HR 621, a bill promoting the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal lands to ten Western states, and HR 622, which would eliminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Chaffetz has since promised to withdraw HR 621, in response to public blowback.

Wyoming public land advocates have organized a fledgling coalition of loosely affiliated conservation, recreation, and sportsmen groups called Keep It Public, Wyoming. Though these groups have their differences, they share the fear that the passage of a public lands transfer bill at the state level would embolden Congress to make future public lands transfer possible. “We don’t want to set the stage to make this transfer easy,” says Wyoming Wildlife Federation Executive Director Chamois Andersen.

This is not the first time threats to Wyoming’s public lands have driven disparate user groups together. In 2006, Citizens of the Wyoming Range, a coalition of local citizens, outfitters, and outdoor groups, helped prevent the development of a gas field in Sublette County. Their work contributed to the Trust for Public Land ultimately buying out the remaining leases on the threatened land in 2012.

In early November, Keep It Public, Wyoming planned a public lands rally in Casper, which attracted about 400 people. And when the Wyoming legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee met the following week to discuss the amendment, about a hundred citizens “swamped the meeting,” says Stephanie Kessler of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. Most came to voice their opposition. The Dec. 14 subcommittee meeting saw even greater turnout—and opposition. The 150 or so citizens who attended couldn’t even fit in the room. 

Aaron Bannon, the stewardship and sustainability director for National Outdoor Leadership School Environmental, described the crowd at the Wyoming hearings as “camo next to tie-dye,” hunters and anglers next to ardent conservationists. “We can argue amongst ourselves about how we use our federal lands,” says Buzz Hettick, chairman of the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, “but let’s just keep them federal.” 

Wyoming citizens signed to show their legislators they oppose public lands transfer.

Similar efforts are underway in Montana: a public lands rally at the state capitol on Jan. 30 attracted over a thousand sportsmen, conservationists, and recreationists—nearly twice as many people as attended the group’s 2015 rally.

The national spotlight on threats to public lands has pushed more people into the arms of local organizations. In the past, Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), which helped organize the rally, had to work to gather volunteers. Now, people are reaching out to MWA to ask how to get involved. “People are showing up that have never been a part of this movement before,” says MWA State Policy Director Kayje Booker.

At a particularly divisive moment nationally, the groundswell of support for public lands has crossed political lines Westwide. In fact, the 2017 Conservation in the West Poll showed that the majority of Westerners from all parties took a positive view of “Trump’s opposition to transferring national public lands to the states.” At the Montana rally, Governor Steve Bullock emphasized the non-partisan nature of this issue. “This ain’t about politics,” he told the crowd. “Whether you’re a Democrat, or Republican, or Libertarian, or vegetarian, these lands belong to you.”

The battle’s not over in Wyoming. The latest transfer bill never made it to committee, so it is effectively dead—at least for this legislative session. But Keep It Public, Wyoming intends to keep up the fight. As Earl DeGroot, one of the administrators of the Facebook page Wyoming Sportsmen for Federal Lands, puts it, “When a war is declared, you come together to fight that war.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow @beccaworby

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that many groups, including Montana Wilderness Association, helped coordinate the Montana rally.

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