Whether to sell the Kelly parcel is a hot topic in the state Senate

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Feb. 22—CHEYENNE — Heated debate on the Senate floor Thursday revolved around whether the Legislature should vote to sell the Kelly parcel now or hold onto the 640-acre piece of land inside the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park and let it rise in value.

Discussion sparked after Senate Majority Leader Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, brought an amendment to the Senate budget to condition the sale of the Kelly parcel to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The conditions include continued grazing leases on the land, access to hunting of animals as permitted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and requiring the federal government to maintain fence repair on the land.

"I'm absolutely supportive of selling the Kelly parcel," Hicks said. "It's a rare occasion that I would normally say that ..."

It wasn't long after Hicks brought the amendment to the floor that other lawmakers stood up and voiced their opinion against a sale. Sens. John Kolb, R-Rock Springs, and Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, were adamant in their objection to a sale, both arguing the Legislature was statutorily obligated to auction off the state trust land to the highest bidder.

These senators, and others, also highlighted the Cowboy State's rocky relationship with the federal government.

"Why on earth are we selling it to the feds?" Biteman said.

Sen. Stacy Jones, R-Rock Springs, said she didn't trust the federal government to keep the 640-acre parcel 100% open to the public, pointing to Yellowstone National Park as a prime example.

"Once we sell it ... we've given up control," Jones said.

Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, however, said selling the Kelly parcel to a private developer almost guaranteed that access to the land would be closed off to the public. Ellis further pointed out that the offer from the federal government is timely, with money set aside in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

This fund is a competitive source of federal revenue through the National Park Service, available to all national parks across the country.

"My understanding ... is that there's $62 million-plus available in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and then a nonprofit is committed to raising the rest of it. That's how serious and significant it is," Ellis said.

Some senators said the $2,800 a year in annual grazing leases simply won't cut it.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the state was failing in its fiduciary duty on holding off on the $100 million sale to the federal government, when the offer is currently on the table.

Soon after Hicks' amendment was passed by a vote of 19-12, Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, brought an amendment to cancel it.

Landen said he, like some of his colleagues, didn't find it appropriate to initiate a land sale during the budget session.

"It just makes no sense that we can do this in the budget," Landen said.

Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said provisions in the Wyoming Constitution allowed the Legislature to override existing statutes.

"What counts — what really, really counts — is the Wyoming Constitution," Driskill said. "The question is, what's the highest value for our children?"

Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, read Article 18, Section 4 of the state Constitution, which allows the Legislature to sell public lands.

"There is nothing in that section about public auction," Barlow said. "The previous section, there is something about public auction that has to do with this state Board of Land Commissioners. The Legislature, in my simple reading, does not seem to have that same level of issue, or condition."

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, reminded her colleagues of the 9,000-plus comments from concerned Wyomingites who protested against seeing the Kelly parcel auctioned off to a potential private developer as the highest bidder.

"The people of Wyoming have spoken. I hope you have listened to them in the past year," Nethercott said. "The only people who can buy that land are very different from who we are."

Landen's amendment failed by a vote of 18-13.

Discussions down the hall

An amendment authorizing a sale of the Kelly parcel to the federal government passed its third and final reading in the Wyoming House of Representatives Wednesday night.

Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, successfully presented an amendment to the House budget that allowed for the sale of the Kelly parcel on one condition. In order to sell the land to the federal government, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has to negate certain elements in Alternative B under their Rock Springs Resource Management Plan (RMP).

For the past few months, the proposed alternative has caused a stir in the Cowboy State, offering full conservation of some of the Rock Springs-area land that would prevent any development on the property, including oil and gas.

Stith said Wednesday night the federal agency is "candid" about the economic impacts of Alternative B. The loss of economic activity under this plan is more than $1 billion, according to BLM's own calculations — and that's just in the oil and gas sector.

"If Alternative B rights of way were selected, you could never build a pipeline going east-west, you couldn't ever put in a fiber-optic line going east-west, you can't do a road going east-west," Stith said. "It's very threatening."

The budget amendment gives the state leverage in its negotiations over the Rock Springs RMP, he said, by requiring Gov. Mark Gordon to first consider "whether the Rock Springs planning area will remain open for oil and gas leasing and rights of way."

The House amendment garnered widespread support from southwest Wyoming House members, including Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale.

"We don't control how the federal government behaves, but this restores the balance in the discussion with the federal government over the future of southwest Wyoming," Sommers said in a news release. His own amendment to retain grazing and hunting rights on the Kelly parcel was also passed.

Hannah Shields is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter. She can be reached at 307-633-3167 or hshields@wyomingnews.com. You can follow her on X @happyfeet004.