Conservation bill has county component

Mar 15, 2016 By Christina George, Staff Writer

CHEYENNE - Gov. Matt Mead has given his final signature to a bill to fund four projects - including one in Fremont County - under the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Funding Act.

Wind River range

The $1.1 million South Pass Aspen II project is sponsored by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. It involves the removal of invasive conifers from sagebrush and aspen habitats in an area with high wildlife populations in the southern Wind River Mountain Range.

According to the bill, the project would provide seasonal and year-long habitats for elk, mule deer, antelope, greater sage grouse and other species and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire in an area with a high risk of property damage.

Conifers would be removed through fire, mechanical, chemical and other methods.

The three other projects listed in the bill are to restore the Lower Encampment River and for conservation easements on Lazy BV in Park County and on Rocking Chair Ranch in Lincoln County.

Split support

The bill, sponsored by the Select Natural Resource Funding Committee, unanimously passed in the Senate.

On March 2, the House voted 41-18-1 in favor of the bill, with split support from the Fremont County legislative delegation.

State Reps. Rita Campbell, R-Shoshoni, and Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, were the only local representatives who supported the bill. State Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, said he cast a "no" vote because the bill gives state money to individuals for conservation easements on their land.

"Generally it is to avoid taxes and it does not open the lands in the conservation easement to the public," Miller said.

According to the Nature Conservancy, a conservation easement is a restriction placed on a piece of property to protect its associated resources.

Under the legislation, the state of Wyoming is a third party beneficiary with a right of recovery on funded conservation easements.

The bill prohibits gratuities or kickbacks.

The House rejected an amendment that would strip the two conservation easement projects listed in the bill. Miller was among those who supported the amendment.

"These are basically tax write-offs for the wealthy, and people are upset about it," he said.

on the House floor.

Miller said people choose to live in Wyoming because of its natural beauty, but the state works for what is underneath the surface. He said conservation easements impact access to mineral wealth.

"When you put a conservation easement on the state's surface, and you have federal minerals underneath, I ask you, try to go permit something on that," Miller said.

State Rep. Jim Allen, R-Lander, voted against the bill as well. Noting that only 15 percent of Fremont County is private land, Allen questioned the rights of a current generation to forbid future generations from ever living on easement-encumbered property.

in the future.

He also said the state should either have 100 percent or 0 percent interest in conservation easements in order to protect its ownership position.

"The state should not be a minority interest holder," Allen said in an interview. "If the state has a compelling reason to use public funds in purchasing a conservation easement, it should be the sole holder of that easement."

He added that the Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, which funds conservation easements, was created when Wyoming's treasury was "flush" with taxes from mineral wealth.

"That is not the case now," Allen said, pointing to "large" revenue shortfalls in the state. "Markets and harmful federal regulations have decreased the state's revenue picture drastically. Now is not the time to buy minority interests in conservation easements."

Instead, he said the state should be placing a higher priority on areas like education and health.

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