By Emily Reed.
Nearly 50% of Wyoming is comprised of public land. While Wyoming has worked really hard to diversify its economy through outdoor recreation opportunities under its previous Governor Matt Mead, an important source of funding for all states and Wyoming in particular has failed to be reauthorized. Over the past five decades The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) contributed over 122 million dollars to Wyoming. Unlike other ‘funds’, the LWCF is not subsidized by taxpayer dollars but rather royalties paid by energy companies that drill for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf. The LWCF was established in 1964 through bipartisan efforts to protect and enhance natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities. The funds are delegated through several programs; for example, Forest Legacy Programs aim to protect working forests and state assistance grants support specific projects.
The most recent successful conservation project in Wyoming was the purchase of Devils Canyon Ranch, a plot of 11,179 acres located in the Bighorn Mountains. This ranch was the gateway to thousands of acres of public land; without access through the ranch, individuals were not able to experience any of it. The Devils Canyon Ranch project is just one example that highlights Wyoming’s biggest conservation issues, private-public land transfers that lead to habitat fragmentation and public land access problems. Wyoming has 3.05 million acres of public land surrounded by private land; while some private landowners allow the general public to drive through their property to access public land areas, there is no permanent law in place that ensures the public have this right to access. In most cases the roads are confusing to navigate and are scattered with ‘no trespassing signs. One solution to this issue is proposing county easements to the private landowners for road access; however, landowners are apprehensive to agree and the price to maintain the roads for the county can become very high.
Due to private-public land swaps the west is a checkerboard of land management and land ownership. While this impacts human use it has also created many challenges for wildlife to access prime habitat, especially during their migration patterns. [You can find more research on specific challenges for Wyoming’s ungulates on the Wyoming Migration Initiative website.] Healthy ecosystems and wildlife populations are crucial to Wyoming’s economy bringing in out-of-state visitors to wildlife-watch, hunt, fish, and in many instances are a driving factor for individuals when choosing to settle down in the state. With the outdoor recreation economy bringing in a total of 5.6 billion in annual consumer spending and occupying 8.3% of all jobs (which is almost double of extraction at 4.5%) in Wyoming; citizens need to engage themselves in issues revolving around the protection of the public lands that support them.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has largely contributed to ensuring public land access and the connectivity of wildlife habitat and even though the fund has reserves that it can function of off for the time being, the longer it goes unauthorized the more money the fund loses. We aren’t talking about a small amount of money here either; as I write this now the fund has lost $283,318,855 and this number goes up by the minute. But the issue of lost money persists beyond the lack of authorization, the LWCF has only been fully funded twice in the past 54 years. Typically, Congress will only partially fund the bill and then transfer millions of dollars out of its reserves for other purposes such as defense spending. Without a system in place that requires dedicated full funding, communities have a hard time planning conservation projects, landowners are less likely to sell land or enter into easements due to the long and uncertain process, and current ongoing projects are never fully completed. Wyoming’s representatives have stated that the lack of full funding is a prominent issue and needs to be addressed, but they all seem to be unconcerned with making changes to it any time soon.
With Wyoming’s greatest resource being its open spaces, we can’t just stand by and watch our economy and ecosystems slowly deteriorate and we certainly should not allow Congress to push the LWCF to the back of their agenda. Here’s what you can do to help protect your public land.
- Contact your members of Congress and share your thoughts on why LWCF is crucial to our state and the urgency to reauthorize it. Here are some helpful tips when writing or calling your Wyoming representatives.
- Be active on Social Media. Those app’s aren’t just for kids anymore, politicians are using this form of communication to connect with their constituencies. Use the hashtag #saveLWCF and share a story about a LWCF experience.
- The LWCF has an ongoing letter to Capitol Hill which you can sign here.
Emily Reed is a writer, conservationist, and all-around-adventurer based out of southeast Wyoming. You can find more of her work at https://emilynreed.weebly.com/.