June 20, 2022 |
Governor Mark Gordon filed an appeal with the Department of Interior on Friday over the Bureau Land Management’s secretive deal to buy the sprawling Marton Ranch in Natrona and Carbon Counties.
In the appeal, the governor questioned why the Bureau flew the agency’s largest-ever purchase of Wyoming land under the radar until the record of decision was announced on May 18th.
Governor Gordon said the Bureau’s “cavalier disregard for public notice and participation violates the spirit if not the letter of the law.”
The purchase using taxpayer dollars involves 35,670 acres of ranch land east of Alcova Reservoir 25 miles southwest of Casper. The deal includes eight miles of prime river access along the property’s northern border. From the North Platte River, the land stretches south into Carbon County.
It’s unclear at this time how much land in Carbon County is included in the deal, or how much in tax revenues will be lost by the transfer from private to public ownership. The Casper Field Manager William Beck and Rawlins Field Manager John Elliot signed off on the Bureau’s Decision of Record.
Both Bureau officials are named in Friday’s legal appeal.
Elliot appeared before the Carbon County Commissioners on June 7th, nearly a month after the May 18th decision was announced. Elliot acknowledged the relative obscurity of the massive land deal by saying he wasn’t sure if the board was aware of the purchase or not.
Pictured above: Photo from Marton Ranch real estate listing from farmandranch.com.
The county commissioners, who asked no questions or offered any comments about the purchase during Elliot’s testimony, weren’t the only impacted government entity left out of the loop on a deal that creates a 118-square mile block of public lands.
Governor Gordon, in his appeal to the Department of Interior about the decision, said despite the fact that State Lands are intermingled with the acquired ranch property, the Bureau did not solicit comments about the massive land acquisition from the governor’s office, the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, or “any affected local and county officials or, most importantly, the public.”
The complete terms of the deal are not known.
Carbon County Commissioner Sue Jones told Bigfoot 99 that the State received the same notices and information from the Bureau as the county received. Jones also questioned why the State waited to question the purchase until after the decision was announced. It’s unclear what information was shared with the state and counties. Bigfoot 99 has requested copies of what information the county received prior to the Record of Decision.
Bureau spokesperson Tim Finnecum told various Wyoming media outlets earlier this month that money to purchase the land came from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which gave a $21 million appropriation last year to purchase the Marton ranch in its entirety. It’s unclear if the Bureau purchased the ranch for $21 million. It apparently was listed at $28 million prior to the May 18th announcement.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established by Congress in 1964. It received new life under the Trump Administration, which permanently funded the program in the 2020 Great Outdoors Act.
Wyoming Senators John Barrasso and Senator Mike Enzi were yea votes when President Trump signed it into law with unanimous Congressional approval.
Under the bill, the LWCF is funded with oil and natural gas royalties to the tune of $900 million a year. The $21 million to buy the Marton Ranch equals about 2% of Interior’s annual bankroll for such purchases.
Bureau officials, like Elliot, say the land purchase will enhance public access to the North Platte River and surrounding areas.
Bureau officials also say that Payments in Lieu of Tax (PILT) payments from the U.S. Department of the Interior will help offset the loss in property tax revenue. The agency has not provided any actual numbers and Carbon County Commissioners did not ask at the June 7th meeting.
The appeal characterizes the bureau’s assurance that lost tax revenues will be backfilled by the federal government as speculation. “The Bureau simply speculated about uncertain future payments,” the appeal states.
Commissioner Jones, responding to this story, said “Wyoming values private property rights above else. Should not a private property owner be able to sell his property to whomever he wants on his terms?”
Governor Gordon said in a statement Friday that Wyoming’s appeal is not about challenging the rights of private property owners or limiting access for sportspeople. “It’s 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.”
Other questions surrounding the deal include whether mineral rights were transferred to the federal government with the sale and how water rights of downstream users might be affected. 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.
The Bureau has not responded to the appeal, which was filed on Friday.