Earl DeGroot

Earl DeGroot

In 2015, a Wyoming legislator stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and spoke fervently in favor of House Bill 209. The bill called for the transfer of federal lands to the state of Wyoming. The legislator proclaimed the only people who would oppose the bill were out-of-state radical environmentalists, most of whom were probably anti-hunting.

When I heard about the legislator’s impassioned speech, I thought, ‘He can’t be right.’ I have lived in Wyoming for decades. I’m a conservative and pro-hunting. And I have met many people who oppose transferring federal lands to the state, where they could be sold. That legislator must be hanging out in different circles than I am.

That impassioned speech, which was intended to build support for federal land transfer, had a deep impact on me. But the impact was exactly opposite what the legislator intended. I decided federal land transfer efforts must be aggressively resisted. Unknown to me, many others were coming to the same conclusion. A grassroots coalition was soon to be formed.

Fortunately, HB 209, which passed the House of Representatives 36-22, died in committee in the Senate. But that same year, the Legislature passed Senate File 56, funding a study to examine the feasibility of transferring the “management” of 25 million of acres of federal land to the state.

The resulting report in August 2016 concluded it would be cost-prohibitive for the state to manage that much acreage. The report confirmed the worst fears of public land advocates. If federal lands were transferred to the state, the state would likely be forced to sell much of the land to pay for the management of the remainder.

But transfer advocates in the Legislature were not to be deterred by the results of the study. If it was not feasible to transfer just the management of federal land, they would pursue transfer of full ownership. But there was a problem. Article 21, Section 26 of the Wyoming Constitution says, “The people of this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to unappropriated public land lying in the boundaries thereof …” In November 2016, a bill was proposed to amend the constitution to remove this impediment to transfer.

The proposal to amend the constitution woke a sleeping giant who had already been agitated by previous prodding with a sharp stick. A fledgling Keep It Public, Wyoming Coalition coalesced. Consisting of approximately 40 grassroots organizations and thousands of citizens, the primary goal was to resist federal land transfer efforts.

In November, several hundred people attended a coalition rally in Casper, and about 100 opposed the constitutional amendment at a legislative meeting in Riverton. In December, nearly 200 protested at a committee meeting in Cheyenne. Due to this opposition, as well as hundreds of emails and phone calls, the bill to amend the constitution died a quiet death during the 2017 legislative session.

But public land advocates were fed up! Why was it necessary to continue to defend the public lands that are the reason many of us live here? The coalition decided to become proactive. Why not ask the Legislature to celebrate our public lands instead of constantly attacking them?

In 2018, taking a lesson from Colorado and Nevada, the coalition proposed a bill to create a Wyoming Public Lands Day. Unfortunately, that bill died partly due to lack of coalition support after a legislative committee amended the bill to call it “Multiple Use of Wyoming Public Lands Day.” Many thought this too wordy, plus it diverted the simple celebratory intent of the bill.

The coalition tried again in 2019. This time, HB 99 passed the Legislature. The fourth Saturday of September, coinciding with National Public Lands Day, is now “Wyoming Public Lands Day!”

This Sept. 25, there will be a number of state and national activities taking place. Among others, planned activities include “Run the Red” in South Pass City. In addition, day-use fees to Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites, as well as national parks, will be waived. You can learn more about “Run the Red” and other activities at keepitpublicwyo.com.

If you aren’t able to join an organized activity, one of the best ways to celebrate is to spend the day on public land, doing what you enjoy most. Either way, please make a vow to help KEEP IT PUBLIC, WYOMING! This will likely be an ongoing battle.

Earl DeGroot is retired management consultant from Cheyenne. He is proud to be a part of the Keep it Public, Wyoming Coalition. To see the lengthy list of Coalition members/supporters, go to http://keepitpublicwyo.com/sign-the-petition/.

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