By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile
The conservation purchase of a 35,670-acre ranch on the North Platte River that puts private land in federal hands bucks Wyoming and GOP resistance to an increase in federal holdings in the state.
The conservation acquisition is the largest the U.S Bureau of Land Management has undertaken in Wyoming, the agency said in announcing the transaction June 2. The purchase will “conserve and expand access to public lands for many generations to come,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement, including access along 8.8 miles of the storied North Platte River.
The voluntary sale of the Marton Ranch south of Casper was years in the making and spearheaded by an independent group, The Conservation Fund, with help from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The purchase will preserve banks of the North Platte that could have been developed if the property remained private.
BLM acquisition of the property — made with $21 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund — also opens an additional 40,000 acres to the public that had been inaccessible while the ranch was private. All told, the complex of the Marton Ranch, other BLM land and Wyoming School Trust property creates a 118-square-mile block of about 75,000 acres.
Much of that is valuable wildlife habitat, including home to elk, pronghorn antelope, whitetail deer, mule deer, wild turkeys, greater sage grouse and other bird species. Five active greater sage grouse breeding-ground leks dot the ranch, said Dan Schlager, the Wyoming state director of The Conservation Fund.
The North Platte itself holds “more pounds per mile of fish than any other stream in Wyoming,” the BLM said as it announced continued multiple-use management, including agricultural grazing, of the property.
But in a state where the federal government owns and manages 48% of the land, some sentiment runs against putting more in federal hands regardless of the promise of preservation, recreation and access. From Wyoming’s congressional delegation to local county commission boards, elected officials are wary such transactions may reduce taxes generated by private property.
A proposed law and existing county plans seek “no net loss” of private land in Wyoming through federal acquisitions. But it’s uncertain what effect a federal conservation purchase might have on overall tax revenues generated by the Marton Ranch. The federal government’s “Payment In Lieu of Taxes” program seeks to make up for some of the property taxes that would be levied on federal land if it was private.
Increased recreation and tourism, along with PILT funds, might help replace what taxes the Marton Ranch paid annually, Schlager said. PILT, plus continued agricultural operations, plus new money from increased recreation will be “chipping away at, if not exceeding” any property tax loss, he said.
The Conservation Fund worked with the Marton family for about five years before it was able to complete the transaction, Schlager said. Announcement of the acquisition kicked off Great Outdoors Month, a celebration launched by the U.S. Senate in 2019, and boosts President Joe Biden’s 30×30 initiative to conserve 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.
“The BLM works hard to provide additional access to previously inaccessible public lands,” Stone-Manning’s June 2 statement reads, “by working with partner organizations like The Conservation Fund and through the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” which taps revenues from offshore oil and gas leases. The acquisition came shortly after Stone-Manning visited Wyoming and touted her agency’s efforts to boost public land access.
The Conservation Fund came to value the property through its other work in the area, Schlager said. “That riparian corridor is pretty rare in Wyoming,” he said of the North Platte, which provides relief in the semi-arid landscape.
In addition to game and fish, the property is home to bald and golden eagles and a variety of migratory birds. With elevation ranging from 5,300 to 7,500 feet, the ranch encompasses diverse habitats.
The adjacent reach of the North Platte has twice been named by American Angler Magazine as the No. 1 spot for rainbow and brown trout, Schlager said. But under private ownership, anglers could not anchor a boat or wade the stretch adjacent to the ranch, he said.
“That’s one of the best floats in Wyoming and the nation,” Schlager said. Without preservation, “it’s not hard to imagine you could end up with development along the river and a number of homes that would impact that stretch.”
Located only about 20 miles from Casper’s 58,000 residents, preservation and public access could help create the city’s “own recreation hub” and boost tourism, Schlager said.
Travelers spent $285 million in Natrona County in 2021, generating $16.3 million in state and local taxes, the BLM said. Meantime, the country’s recreation sector is growing faster than the rest of the economy, Schlager said.
Preservation and access will have “a lot of positive economic impact — gear and equipment, tourist dollars spent in hotels, camping,” he said. New access will come “at a time when it’s [getting] pretty crowded out there,” he said.
Maps show most of the ranch is located in Natrona County — south of Casper and east of Alcova Reservoir — with a small part in Carbon County to the south. The Natrona County assessor’s records show that 2021 agricultural taxes — excluding residential property — on about 33,324 acres of Marton Ranch property amounted to about $10,300.
The federal PILT to Natrona County amounts to more than $3.8 million a year, Schlager said.
An undated real estate listing for the Marton Ranch said taxes on a portion of the ranch in Carbon County amounted to $260 a year. Maps show what appears to be about 2,000 acres of private ranch land in that county.
‘No net loss’
Carbon County’s Natural Resources Management Plan, adopted about a year ago, calls for no net loss of private lands. “Payment in lieu of taxes funds and other federal funding mechanisms should be used to offset any loss in tax income resulting from land exchanges or purchases from federal agencies,” the plan states.
The American public owns about 30 million acres in Wyoming and doles out about $31 million in PILT money to Wyoming in a year. The BLM manages 18.4 million acres of the federal holdings in the state.
Wyoming residents are skeptical about the federal government acquiring more property, a sentiment reflected in the late Craig Thomas’s 1993 No Net Loss of Private Lands Act. Introduced in the U.S. House, the measure would have prohibited the federal government from acquiring 100 or more acres in Wyoming unless it disposed of an equal value of federal property. The bill applied to states in which 25% or more of the land was owned by the federal government, but included some exceptions.
Congress referred the bill to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and the measure did not advance beyond there.
In Congress a similar move is afoot today. The proposed 30×30 Termination Act would prohibit the federal government from acquiring acreage in states or counties in which 15% or more of the land is managed by a federal agency — unless the government disposed of an equal amount of federal land. The act would mandate “no net-loss of non-Federal land and taxable acreage” and would require the federal disposal to take place during the same fiscal year as the acquisition.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) sponsored the bill, which has not advanced beyond being assigned to a committee. Wyoming’s Rep. Liz Cheney is not among the 27 co-sponsors. Wyoming’s delegation to the U.S. Senate has not signed onto a companion upper-house bill.
Cheney, however, introduced her own bill that would curtail President Biden’s executive order that includes the 30×30 plan. The Cheney bill would require that the federal government pay taxes on any land it acquires in an amount that “would be assessed … if such land remained private …”
Introduced last year, the legislation would ensure “that counties continue to generate much needed revenue off private lands that may be sold to the federal government,” Wyoming County Commissioners Association President Jim Willox said in a statement. It has not advanced out of a committee.
On a county level, some commissioners also resist federal property acquisition. In Sweetwater County, commissioners on June 7 adopted a Federal Lands and Resources Plan that “strongly supports” no net loss of private lands.
It calls for consultation before any state or federal acquisition “particularly when the acquisition will adversely affect the County tax base.”
Industry groups also are on board. For example, the Wyoming Wool Growers Association in December adopted a similar policy, according to the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. The group supports no net loss of ownership or control of private lands, the publication reported.
Congress, however, supports a number of nationwide conservation efforts, Schlager said. It has voted to permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, has voted to permanently fund it with $900 million a year and has passed the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act to simplify the purchase of federal property deemed disposable.
“There is a lot of bipartisan support for voluntary conservation,” he said. There’s a danger in “no-net-loss” policies and regulations, he suggested.
Regulations or laws that limit who landowners can sell their property to may restrict a fundamental and important property right, he said: “the right to sell the property to anyone they wish.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.