Conflicting applications for grazing leases roil Wyoming Legislature

Conflicting bids over state land leases, and whether prior lease holders should get preferential treatment at the expense of public education revenues has spilled over into the Wyoming Legislature. House Bill 318 would generally point away from conservation groups willing to pay two-to-three times as much for state land leases than the livestock producers who have long held those leases. Read the read in the Casper Star Tribune. Conflicting Leases by Brodie Farquhar.

The Western Watersheds Project has applied applied for almost 20,000 acres of expiring Wyoming State School Trust Land grazing leases, including large acreage leased to Executive Vice-President of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association, Jim Magagna. Also included in the applications was over 6,000 acres of Wyoming school trust lands in critical Bonneville Cutthroat Trout habitat in the BLM’s big Smiths Fork grazing allotment located near Cokeville, Wyoming. Other leases include ones in the south end of the Wind River Range near Farson, Wyoming and in the huge Green Mountain Common Allotment south of Jeffrey City, Wyoming.

A little background is in order.

Upon statehood most of the states got one section (a square mile) of land from the public domain for the support of the public schools. Some states like Idaho and Wyoming got 2 sections, and a few got 4 sections (Utah, New Mexico).

Today most of these lands do provide, as intended, money for the public schools. However, in almost all cases the money comes from timber cutting and mineral leases on these lands, even though the dominant use in terms of acres and environmental impact is grazing.

These state school land grazing leases are awarded on the the basis competitive bids, but generally speaking, they are passed around to good ‘ol boys and often don’t raise a dime for the public schools.

The Western Watersheds Project (once named the Idaho Watersheds Project) was organized in part to increase the amount bid on these leases by outbidding the good ‘ol boys and then not grazing the land, allowing it to recover from perhaps a hundred years of grazing abuse. So it was a win/win situation — the school kids get more and the land is rested from maltreatment.

In Idaho, the livestock politicians yelled like stuck pigs. Read once again Molly Ivins 1998 column on it. Western Watersheds got a bad name for taking on and exposing those who were abusing the state school lands and shortchanging Idaho’s school children.

Not with me, however, I joined WWP as an Idahoan who wanted better funding of the schools and also one tired of being a second or third class citizen.

Now Western Watersheds is bidding on expiring state school land leases in Wyoming, and can anyone guess how the overprivileged segment of the ranching industry is reacting?







  1. TPageCO Avatar

    There was a successful ballot initiative in Colorado in 1996 which forced the State Land Board to manage 10% of their properties for long-term conservation values. It would be interesting to see if WWP could go down the same path in the Northern Rockies, depending on how easy it is to get something on the ballot. A ballot initiative would allow more people to see what a scam the SLB program really is.

  2. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    A little more background: it’s two sections per township that Wyoming got at Statehood.

    Any attempt to require Wyoming to manage state lands for conservation values would take an act of Congress. When I lobbied at the Legislature for the Sierra Club in 1997, there was a huge state lands bill that would have, among other things, authorized 99 year leases for ranchers. I did quite a bit of research on the issue of state lands, including preferential rights. It’s very sticky in Wyoming. In many other western states, court decisions have supported the requirement to maximize income from state lands for the schools. However, we have a Wyoming Supreme Court decision that has upheld preferential lease rights in this state, finding some discretionary authority with the State Land Board to choose in favor of the current lease holder even when the competing bid is higher.

    In any case, good luck to WWP in challenging this in Wyoming. However, I doubt it will work.

  3. be Avatar

    if Wyoming has the decision mentioned then why the necessity for state legislative action as is the case here?

    political grandstanding?

    an attempt to tighten down the discretionary authority?

    or is there a statute that they’re attempting to patch that could be exploited in favor of WWP?

    it will be interesting. WWP’s willingness to pony up significantly larger funds is succeeding in bringing to light the cronyism and the state’s egregious disparity with consideration for the interests involved. Unfortunately for the children of Wyoming, the legislature has chosen that they be left behind.

  4. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    I would suggest an aggressive media campaign in Wyo. papers across the state pointing out how the state is by passing a significant amount of money just to keep the good ol’ boy network in charge, and rolling in dough.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    If enough blogs pick this up, it can become a national issue.

    The role of Magagna ought to be a fine “human” interest piece.

  6. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    In nearly a decade and a half of dealing with Wyoming politics, I can say it’s not especially efficient or even sophisticated. Even when a particular law or court decision is sufficient to achieve an oligarchic purpose, the legislature, like chimps, sometimes feels the need to go overboard–grandstanding, as “be” puts it, when sufficiently provoked.

    For example, regarding the wolf controversy, Wyoming law already had a provision allowing the G&F Commission to declare “trophy game” animals as “predatory animals” in any area of the state, “giving due consideration of the livestock and game industries.” This provision of law is at Wyoming Statute 23-1-302(a)(ii) and has been there for years. Nevertheless, the legislature saw fit to make a big deal of its wolf management dual status law four years ago, essentially however passing a redundant law.

    I have not seen the specifics of the WWP proposal, but I don’t believe it will achieve traction in the Wyoming courts, assuming it goes that far. Most certainly, the WWP’s challenge to existing state land leases will not be accepted by the State Land Board, which is made up of the five top state level elected officials, all of whom in the livestock industry’s pocket.

    The challenge will most certainly be beneficial in bringing to the public’s attention the control that the livestock industry exerts over land use policy in the State of Wyoming.

    Jim Magagna is the most corrupt, power-hungry, dishonest politician in Wyoming, hands down. Press attention to his career would be most welcome to those of us who live in Wyoming.

  7. TPageCO Avatar

    Mr. Hoskins – you seem to know a lot about this issue. What’s your take on the future of SLB lands located in counties with expensive real estate values (assuming one can successfully challenge the preferential rights ruling)?. What authority does the SLB have to sell the sections outright, since in some places this would generate much greater revenue than grazing?

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I notice they debated the sale of a school section next to Jackson, WY for about 5 years because it was worth so much.

  9. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    We need to differentiate between the legal authority of the State Land Board and the politics of the State Land Board.

    As with the state section in Jackson Hole, some parcels are far more valuable as real estate than for any other “use.” The State Land Board certainly has the authority to sell such sections, and there is no legal challenge to such sales since indeed the sole purpose of state school lands is to produce income for the schools maximally. Technically, these are not multiple use lands and never were. This is something the public often fails to understand. It is still illegal, for example, to camp on Wyoming state lands. Every so often in the Wyoming legislature, a hunting group brings forward a bill to allow camping on state lands, and the bill always goes down in flames, since Ag has created both legal and de facto proprietary rights in state lands.

    And there’s the politics of the State Land Board. Agriculture, both ranching and farming, has twisted the intent of state school lands Wyoming to its special needs. There are houses built on state land sections by lease holders, for example. This is certainly the case with preferential lease rights.

    Many people have remarked how agriculture seems to have no sense of community obligation–especially the livestock industry. Ranchers are perfectly happy to create an increasing stream of economic subsidies for themselves, but are determined to see as little of the public purse go to other certainly worthy purposes–even the schools. Schools in Wyoming have been notoriously underfunded historically, except in areas of mineral wealth, which largely is produced from federal lands.

    This is not to say that state sections, or portions thereof, haven’t been sold over the years. They have. But it is clear to me that Ag has de facto veto authority over such sales, even though the complete de jure authority lies with the State Land Board.

    As I recall, and I didn’t follow it very closely, much of the discussion over the sale of the State section in Jackson Hole was that it shouldn’t be sold primarily because its value would continue to increase and it would be better to hold off on the sale for larger returns later.

    The section was of course being used for grazing, and at the time there were some pretty heavy political hitters in Jackson determined to maintain open spaces by maintaining working ranches. This fact is slowly changing; even the Hansen-Mead properties have finally been sold off.

    In Wyoming, agriculture, particularly livestock, is an oligarchy. It is a fading oligarchy, to be sure, but it is still an oligarchy determined to hold onto its economic and political privileges, regardless of the cost and consequences. It is this determination that lies beneath the wolf controversy, the controversy over elk feedgrounds, the bear controversy, the grazing controversy, etc. Every conservation controversy.

    This oligarchy has not only done considerable ecological damage throughout the state, but it has done considerable damage to the body politic. Wyoming is only a republic in name. It is an oligarchy masquerading as a republic, and in this oligarchy, progressives of any sort are disenfranchised.

    All we can do is continue to push, push, push.

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I’m pleased to say I’ve camped illegally on the Wyoming state lands a number of times.

  11. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    So have a lot of people. But technically, it’s still illegal to camp on Wyoming state lands.

    Good luck with the challenge to the expired leases. Infinite pushing, perhaps a little give.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan