Big deal: concerns over 35,000 acre BLM land purchase
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon is questioning the transparency of the Bureau of Land Management acquisition of the Marton Ranch, citing the BLM’s failure to solicit comments from his office, the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, affected local and county officials, or the public. Gordon has filed an appeal.
In a statement, Gordon said the challenge to the acquisition is focused on the adequacy and proper adherence to the process that occurred. He supports the expansion of public access for hunters and anglers, as well as opportunities for recreation, and also recognizes the rights of private landowners to sell their land as they see fit.
“This action is not about limiting access for sportspeople or challenging the rights of private property owners’ rights,” Gordon said. “It is about whether the Federal government can increase its land holdings without public scrutiny, or should it adhere to the same transparent process that private landowners are subject to if they sought to purchase or exchange federal land.”
To buy or sell land the State must have a 60-day comment period and hold two public votes of the State Board of Land Commissioners.
Karen Budd-Falen said any purchase by the federal government using funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund is required by statute to have two things: a substantive statute allowing for the purchase of the property, the exchange of the property, or the sale of the property as well as an appropriation attached to it.
Budd-Falen said when the Water Conservation Fund was created, Congress intended funds from off-shore oil to be utilized in the purchases of surface land. However, the fund still must be appropriated each year, though some years funds were added and in other years, there were not. During the Trump administration, Congress approved an annual appropriation that gives permanent funding for projects of this type. For any federal agency to acquire property, she said, the agency must have statutory authority to purchase the land, which for the BLM is the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Under the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the BLM and all federal and state agencies compile an annual list of priority funding projects. The Secretary of the Interior reviews the core project list and indicates which projects will be used to fill out the appropriation. The list serves as notice to Congress of which projects each department deems most deserving of funding. The lists are all searchable by year and because funds are not authorized unless they’re documented as a priority, the public has a means by which to have notice of agency purchasing intentions.
As for the statutory requirement, Budd-Falen said the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 dictates a number of requirements that must be met before the BLM may purchase land. Among them, an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act and notification to the governor and the state’s congressional delegation. The problem with this purchase, she said, is the only notification Gov. Gordon said his office received was a press release from the BLM announcing the acquisition of the 35,000 acres in Carbon and Natrona Counties.
“I went back and looked on the Water Conservation lists, and this land purchase is not listed, so there’s a legal question with regard to how this land purchase was completed without it being listed as a funding priority,” she said. “The BLM said they gathered funds over several years- it’s a large sum- but even if they were asking only for a small amount of money for a portion of the purchase, it still must be included on the list. This wasn’t on the list and that’s a problem.
Gov. Gordon told the Wyoming Stock Growers Association that he had not been notified of the purchase and when he reached out to former Governor Mead, he confirmed his administration was not notified either.
The BLM, she said, called it an oversight.
The federal government does not pay taxes on land, so the entities that have previously benefit from property taxes- like school districts- will no longer have access to those tax dollars.
“It appears the NEPA document never went out for public comment,” she said. “They did an environmental assessment with a finding of no significant impact.”
The environmental assessment and the resulting finding of no significant impact were signed less than one week apart.
The state’s appeal claims the cursory environmental assessment prepared by the Bureau did “not cover, in any meaningful way, the potential impacts that the Marton Ranch acquisition will have on tax revenues, grazing, mineral development, and other natural resources. Rather, the Bureau simply speculated about uncertain future payments in lieu of taxes, ignored a wide range of socioeconomic and environmental impacts, and categorially failed to explain its decision.”
The BLM has said they will allow the seller to continue to graze the property for two years following the sale. Budd-Falen said the lease many not be renewed automatically. If additional grazing will occur after two years, it must go into the BLM system as an allotment and then grazing would be allowed only if the Grazing Management Plan was changed, which is quite uncommon.
“Right now, there is no clear path to allow grazing with the original land owner,” she said.
She said there are isolated state sections within the area that are not separately fenced. The State Land Office is currently leasing those state sections to the landowner, but if the BLM seeks to end grazing, the isolated state sections will not be leasable.
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