Last week, Senate President Eli Bebout saw the writing on the wall, deciding not to waste the Legislature’s time with a proposed amendment to the Wyoming Constitution that would have set the stage for the state to take over many federal lands.
Bebout effectively killed the measure on Friday, saying he would not assign it to a committee because he didn’t believe it had the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate.
That was a good choice on multiple levels.
Not only was it pragmatic, we remain puzzled about what Wyoming would actually stand to gain from a transfer of ownership, much as Powell City Councilman Jim Hillberry recently wondered.
“I know we don’t like the federal government,” Hillberry told some local lawmakers last month. “But from my perspective, I think it would be a big drain-hole for the state of Wyoming to do that.”
Until Wyoming lawmakers are certain that a takeover would benefit both state coffers and the lands themselves, they should be hesitant to take on the burden of owning and managing millions more acres of property.
In one sense, persevering with the proposed constitutional amendment would have been refusing to take no for an answer.
Beyond drawing passionate opposition from many citizens around the state, a report commissioned by the Legislature and released in November painted a grim picture of the practicality of even just taking over the management of Wyoming’s federal lands.
Y2 Consultants wrote that “negotiating the details would be complicated and politically, it appears it would be an exceptionally drawn out and contentious process.” Further, “even with political will, it appears there may be a vast number of entwined and overlapping federal laws that would have to be changed and unwound,” the report said.
In another sense, continuing to move forward with the amendment would also be refusing to take “yes” for an answer.
President Donald Trump has pledged to change many of the things that Wyoming leaders have long complained about. In fact, on Tuesday, Trump criticized years-long environmental permitting processes that end with a denial “over something that nobody’s ever heard of before.”
“I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist, I believe in it. But it’s out of control and we’re going to make a very short process. And we’re going to either give you your permits or we’re not going to give you your permits,” Trump said. “But you’re going to know very quickly. And generally speaking we’re going to be giving you your permits.”
The president was talking to automobile manufacturers and referencing buildings, but his remarks would have been right at home at a state- or county-level discussion about oil and gas development.
It seems like this is a time for the federal government’s critics in Wyoming to sit tight. They may get what they want without the hassle, expense and permanency of new amendments and laws.
There is, of course, plenty of legitimate angst among the more conservation-minded about what these changes will mean for our public lands; we certainly hope President Trump will take steps to protect our air, water and wildlife when he’s expediting those permits.
While we’re not on board with the idea of transferring lands to the state, we’ll add that some of the opposition seemed off-base — like the claim that Wyoming’s transfer movement is just a big scheme to sell off public lands to the highest bidder. We believe our representatives’ repeated assurances that they want to keep public lands public.
Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, said last month that he believed language in the proposed amendment would keep public land from being sold to private buyers.
“If that’s not the case, then they’re going to have a problem,” Laursen said.
Frankly, if any lawmaker thinks that auctioning off our favorite hiking, hunting, biking, fishing, riding, dirt-biking or bird-watching spots is a good idea, we’d encourage them to run on that platform and see how quickly they get voted out of office.
What this debate is really about is how best to manage our public lands: where do we draw the line between preservation and development?
We hope everyone who has a fishing hole or hiking trail in the fight stays engaged in this discussion, because that opportunity to weigh in is one of the great things about our public lands.