- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Some county commissions in Wyoming have picked sides in the political debate over whether states should take control of federal lands.

So far, the Big Horn, Natrona, Lincoln and Weston county commissions have aligned themselves with a Utah group that advocates for state control while the Teton and Albany commissions have adopted resolutions in favor of keeping the lands in federal hands.

Of Wyoming’s nearly 100,000 square miles, about 48 percent of it is federal land. If the state took control of it, access and revenue could change for good or ill - depending on the side of the debate a person falls.

Wyoming lawmakers began discussing the issue of public land ownership in 2013, and this year, they approved a study into the issue of state management of the lands, which would remain under federal ownership. The study excludes national parks and monuments, wilderness areas, tribal lands and Department of Defense lands.

People who favor state control are frustrated by the time it takes the feds to permit mineral development, which provides the bulk of state and local tax revenue. They think years of poor federal land policy has led to an explosion in wildfires. They argue that on statehood, the federal government promised to transfer ownership - something that happened in the eastern part of the country but not the West.

The movement is known as the Second Sagebrush Rebellion, named after a similar Western movement in the 1970s and 1980s. At the center of the movement is the American Lands Council, in suburban Salt Lake City.

Opponents, many of whom are avid outdoorsmen, are concerned access to hiking, hunting, fishing and other activities will be lost to mineral and agricultural development. They do not think the state has the cash to fight large wildfires, especially if oil or coal prices crash and money the state could generate from the lands slows to a trickle. They think the state’s chances to actually obtain the lands are nil.

In general, Wyoming’s counties are opposed to a widespread takeover of federal lands, Pete Obermueller, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1AYHEVK).

The association instead proposes a collaborative approach of looking at conflict areas, such as wilderness study areas, and working with county commissioners, recreation advocates, conservationists and others to craft legislation for more local control.

“It should be decided from the ground up and a legislative approach instead of this legal approach out of the American Lands Council of suing the federal government,” he said.

The Lands Council advocates a multi-faceted approach to state takeover, including litigation as necessary, according to its website.

Rep. David Miller, one of the leading advocates of state takeover, said he’s willing to write into law that Wyoming, if it ever obtains federal lands, will never sell them.

“Frankly, I don’t have a problem agreeing to that, if that’s what it takes for people on the federal control side to come around and support it,” the Riverton Republican said. “I don’t have a problem tacking that on.”

He believes federal land management is hurting sportsmen, especially since roads are being closed down.

But the Teton and Albany county resolutions note the importance of tourism from visitors drawn to the lands, the expertise of federal employees who live and pay taxes in local communities, and the need for federal money and expertise to suppress wildfires.

Ninety-seven percent of the land in Teton County is public, and mostly federal, while federal lands comprise 24 percent of Albany County.

“It’s definitely critical for our environment and economy and community that we keep those lands in public hands,” Teton Commission Chairwoman Melissa Turley said. “We think the most appropriate places is where they are: in federal lands.”

“I think it’s huge because I don’t think the state can afford it,” Albany County Commissioner Tim Chesnut said. “I know this county can’t afford it. Where are they (the state) going to get the money to manage it? It’s not cheap.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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