Teton is now the second Wyoming county to come out in strong opposition to a constitutional amendment that many people fear greases the gears for transferring federal lands to the state.
At issue is Senate Joint Resolution 3, which if passed would let Wyoming voters decide if lands conveyed from the U.S. government after 2019 should be guaranteed to remain accessible to the public.
Writing to Teton County’s five state representatives and senators, the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners jointly condemned the bill, suggesting legislators are getting ahead of themselves.
“It seems ... that the state should first ask its residents whether they believe that federally managed public lands should be transferred to the state,” town and county leaders wrote in a letter finalized Monday. “Then, if the residents endorse such a transfer, the state Legislature should pursue the proposed constitutional amendment or other management options.
“Otherwise,” the officials wrote, “it is asking Wyoming citizens to decide how they might want property to be managed before they are asked if they want the property transferred.”
The letter was addressed to state Reps. Andy Schwartz, Mike Gierau and Marti Halverson and Sens. Leland Christensen and Dan Dockstader. It is available to read on the web at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
Schwartz and Gierau, both Jackson Hole residents and Democrats, have been steady critics of transferring federal land, which accounts for more than 97 percent of Teton County’s overall acreage.
Halverson and Dockstader, Republicans, have been proponents of allowing states to at least manage more federal property. Both hang their hats in Lincoln County, a decidedly more pro-lands-transfer community.
Christensen, who sat on the committee that crafted the legislation, is considered by some to be more of a wild card. The Alta Republican said Tuesday that he has heard from his constituents, and he opted to halt the speculation on his position.
“The input I’ve received from our community is that there are very strong concerns about it, and I have my concerns, too,” Christensen told the News&Guide.
“In the shape it’s in now I won’t support it,” he said. “Things change, but I’m not sure how this one could change that much.”
Among local Wyoming governments, the town and county’s opposition was preceded by Sweetwater County, whose commissioners OK’d a similarly worded letter on Dec. 9.
“With approximately 4.5 million acres of federal lands in Sweetwater County, we strongly believe that the state should reject any efforts, plans or schemes to transfer federal lands to the state whether for ownership or management, and we oppose the proposed constitutional amendment,” Sweetwater County Board Chairman Wally Johnson wrote.
Other northwest Wyoming counties have opted not to stake out a position.
The Pinedale Roundup reported last week that commissioners in 80 percent federally owned Sublette County were “individually opposed to the concept” of the amendment but that the board was “reluctant to voice their opinions in writing as a whole.”
Lincoln County commissioners also have not weighed in, but Halverson said she knows her three-member board is in favor of both the proposed amendment and federal lands transfer generally. Halverson herself is a proponent of the amendment, and she said she would feel comfortable voting for it after having campaigned in favor of the transfer of federal land.
“I won by almost 1,000 votes, so I would say that by supporting this amendment I am representing the majority of the people in my district,” Halverson said. “I have supporters of this idea in every precinct in my district, and that includes the three Teton County precincts.
“They’re not as voluble as the opponents,” she said, “but they are there.”
Conservation organizations, outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen groups — statewide and local — have rallied hard against the bill dating back to when the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee first brought it up. To become law the bill would have to pass by two-thirds in both the House and Senate and then win over the majority of voters in a statewide election.
In an emailed statement the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance applauded the town and county’s letter. The nonprofit organization labeled the proposed constitutional amendment a “thinly veiled attempt to lay the foundation for transferring public lands to state ownership.”
“We’re hopeful our local state representatives will listen to the strong voice from our community and across Wyoming,” the Alliance said.
The Teton County Democratic Party has also organized against the legislation. At Sunday on Town Square it plans to stage a protest partly geared toward opposing it. A recent email blast from the party urged residents to contact Christensen directly to share their views on the amendment.
Teton County voices supporting the transfer of federal lands to Wyoming have been few and far between. Commissioner Mark Newcomb’s read is that most locals are opposed, though he was hesitant to guess if it was a strong or subtle majority.
“I feel like the majority of the county feels that federal ownership of our public lands is critical for the long-term sustainable health of our economy,” Newcomb said.
Keeping federal lands in federal hands, he said, would ensure resources are in place to fight wildfires and fend off the “short-term, economic-driven extraction of natural resources.” Leaving the deeds where they are would also protect public access and avert a “whole host of unknowns” the community would face if federal lands were transferred, he said.
On Tuesday, as the Wyoming Legislature opened its 2017 session, House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Natrona, and House Majority Floor Leader David Miller, R-Riverton, spoke in support of transferring federal lands, Halverson said.
Christensen, however, was skeptical that he would get to cast a vote this session on the amendment, legislation that could make a Wyoming takeover of its federal property more palatable to the people of the state.
“We’ll see if it even comes to a vote,” Christensen said.
The state senator pointed out that President-elect Trump and his Interior Secretary nominee, Ryan Zinke, have both gone on the record opposing the transfer of federal lands. Wyoming’s statehood agreement, he said, also runs counter to the idea.
“So when you add all of these things up, and then with the concern about losing access, I don’t see this going anywhere,” Christensen said. “I could be wrong, but I don’t see it going anywhere.”