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July 17, 2014 7:16 am

AMEND CORNER: Do we really want those federal lands?

Written by Don Amend

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the pipe dreams of one of our candidates for governor. Recently, he has been enlarging on his positions regarding federal land, so his intentions merit further comment.

In a recent story, Taylor Haynes was quoted as saying that he will take control of “every square inch” of Wyoming, including the national parks. If the feds don’t give up control and instead enter the state to do their jobs, he will have them arrested.

Moreover, he will open the whole state to drilling, including Yellowstone Park and, presumably, my backyard as well.

Now, first of all, I’m pretty sure that, if Wyomingites really think about it, they don’t really want control of all that land, and here’s why.

Owning that land will require the state to administer it. That will take people, and Haynes admitted as much in the story, saying he will offer jobs to all the federal employees that currently do work in the state. That means the cost of watching over those lands, which is now borne by the whole nation, will come out of our Wyoming pockets.

Given the fact that most Republicans, especially those who are most likely to support Haynes, think the state has too many employees already, I can’t believe they want to convert those many federal workers to the state payroll.

Furthermore, taking control of all federal property will mean that the cost of fighting the next forest fire will come out of our pockets as well. So will the cost of maintaining the highways and other infrastructure in, for example, Yellowstone Park, a place that sorely needs some attention to infrastructure.

Now, I’m sure Haynes and his supporters believe that by making virtually every inch of Wyoming available for drilling and mining, the income will take care of the increased costs, but that’s not a certainty. Mineral prices, particularly oil, are volatile, drilling or mining in Wyoming might well be not worth the cost if prices fall too low.

In addition, increased drilling or mining, especially when it’s done on a large scale, is not cost-free. We are seeing communities in the Bakken region struggling with those costs today, and in the not-so-distant past, Wyoming communities such as Rock Springs, Evanston, and Gillette faced major problems from a similar boom in mineral development. Politicians such as Haynes, who are averse to taxes, are unlikely to ask for tax increases necessary to deal with those problems.

Haynes of course, argues that once he takes control, Wyoming will keep all the mineral royalties rather than receiving a share of them from the federal government, and the oil companies will go along, because, if they don’t, he will not let them operate in Wyoming.

But Haynes over-estimates the power he will wield as governor. In real life the federal government isn’t likely to go along with giving up their share of the royalties, and it is unlikely that the state would prevail in such a dispute.

States have a pretty bad win-loss record against the federal government. The mineral companies have a lot more reasons to go along with the feds than they have to bow to Wyoming’s will, and if the governor were to shut them out of Wyoming, the industry could simply wait him out. They wouldn’t have to wait long before the state’s fiscal situation would force the governor to rethink his strategy.

Haynes says he is a constitutional scholar, and holds that the federal government is constitutionally limited to owning 10 square miles of territory for a national capital.

A clause later in the Constitution, though, speaks to congressional power to “dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” That clause presupposes that the central government will own property other than the capital city, military bases and “other needful buildings.”

In any event, when it was written, the nation consisted of only 13 states, and it was assumed that the needed land would come from one or more of them. Some of them had land claims to the West and they voluntarily gave them up to the federal government.

When the Louisiana Purchase was made, the government became the owner of millions more acres that had not been taken from any of the existing states. It is unlikely, then, that the writers of the Constitution or the states themselves, believed that the clause Haynes cites applied to all that land.

Realistically, all of Wyoming was federal land before Wyoming existed.

The land now occupied by the District of Columbia was once part of Virginia, unlike the Shoshone National Forest lands, which were U.S. property before Wyoming was created. Yellowstone became a national park when U.S. Grant was president nearly two decades before Wyoming was a state.

Given that, it’s illogical to assume the federal government is unconstitutionally keeping ownership of land in Wyoming, and in fact, the Wyoming Constitution recognized that fact.

Constitutional questions aside, though, I question whether Wyoming can administer the land better than the federal government. We have seen conflict over how state school lands, ceded to the state under a law passed prior to the U.S. Constitution, should be handled by the state.

Could we really do a better job with millions of state forest lands than is being done now by the U.S. Forest Service?

They certainly haven’t done so well with the Department of Education.

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