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CHEYENNE – A coalition of individuals, advocacy groups and businesses hopes Wyoming lawmakers will consider designating a day to appreciate public lands in the state.

But it’s not clear if it will have the support it needs due to a section that may prove too controversial.

While Wyoming has been in an economic slump tied to its minerals sector, outdoor recreation continues to bring money into the state. In 2016, outdoor recreation brought $5.6 billion into Wyoming’s economy and supported 50,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. It doesn’t come close to the economic activity generated by energy commodities in the state, but tourism remains Wyoming’s second-largest sector.

The proposed legislation would establish the last Saturday in September as Public Lands Day. Chris Merrill, Wyoming Outdoor Council associate director, said supporters think it’s important to recognize the role outdoor recreation on public lands plays in Wyoming for its residents and visitors.  

“The big picture in this proposal is about livability and quality of life in Wyoming,” Merrill said. “It’s a value, in my opinion, that will make or break Western towns in the future. I think a lot of people understand that.”

As Wyoming looks to diversify its economic base so it can break out of the perennial boom-and-bust cycles, Gov. Matt Mead led the establishment of the ENDOW initiative, meant to develop a 20-year plan to that end. In its preliminary report, issued earlier this month, the ENDOW Executive Council identified Wyoming’s outdoor lifestyle and recreation opportunities as enablers to attracting businesses and workforce to the state.

“Economic growth and opportunities in coming decades are really going to rely on human capital, and that’s attached to an ability to attract talented and entrepreneurial people to a region,” Merrill said. “Towns in the West are already dying or thriving on an ability to attract professionals and families, and that’s a trend that’s only going to continue.”

The Public Lands Day draft bill follows a controversial proposed constitutional amendment that briefly gained traction during the 2017 Wyoming legislative session. If passed by the Legislature and approved by voters, it would have specified in the Wyoming Constitution how federal public lands would be managed if transferred to the state.

Though Merrill said the Public Lands Day draft bill is a largely symbolic gesture, it includes a legislative determination that efforts to transfer federal lands into state or private control “are contrary to the wishes of Wyoming people and the democratic values of freedom and access.”

Any proposal regarding transfer of public lands to state control would pass through the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, as did the 2017 constitutional amendment. Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, committee co-chairman, said he doubts Wyoming senators would support a bill establishing a position against transferring federal lands to the state.

“What they’re doing is in direct opposition to a bill from last year, and I can tell you some of the senators supported that bill,” he said. “So the chances of (the Public Lands Day bill) being heard on the Senate floor are slim, and chances of it passing are very minimal. If they had just gone with (language) celebrating federal lands, that would be fine. But with those legislative findings flying right in the face of the bill from last year, making a political statement in the same moment, I doubt it will find its way.”

Because the proposed bill is a coalition effort, Merrill said there would need to be some consensus about any changes to the language.

Currently, he said, no lawmakers have agreed to sponsor the Public Lands Day bill. But the bill, as written, Merrill said, should only be considered a starting place.

“I think it’s best to view this language as a first draft,” he wrote in an email. “We all recognize that the lead sponsor will tweak the language to fit what he or she is comfortable with, and the legislative process will inevitably lead to amendments and good conversations, etc.

“I don’t think the coalition believes this language is in any way perfect, and I also know that this group is a very big tent – we’re not a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of coalition. I think we’d first and foremost like to see a bill introduced and then let the process play itself out.”

Von Flatern said he’s not aware of any proposals regarding transferring federal lands to state control for the 2018 budget session.

In the meantime, advocacy organizations are continuing attempts to rally support for keeping public lands in federal hands. Keep It Public, Wyoming, which was one of the lead organizations involved in opposing the 2017 constitutional amendment, is hosting events in support of the Public Lands Day draft bill, including one today in Sheridan.

Merrill said previous events in Jackson and Laramie attracted strong shows of support, and he expects more of the same going forward.

“I think the response is only going to get stronger as the days and weeks go on,” he said.

Joel Funk is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at jfunk@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @jmacfunk.

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