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Recreational Use of State Trust Lands

As Wyoming continues to examine ways to counter its budget shortfalls, one topic not being discussed this legislative session is the intersection of recreation and state trust lands program responsibilities. Despite the pandemic, 2020 brought record numbers of visitors to Wyoming. Could recreation have a much larger role in generating revenue for Wyoming’s public schools? It could, if Wyoming adopted policies similar to other western states, but such a proposal would be expected to generate considerable opposition from those who currently make recreational use of state trust lands for free.

In a January 26th press release, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish announced that its state game commission had entered into an agreement with the New Mexico State Land Office for an easement to “allow hunters, anglers and trappers to access state trust lands in exchange for an annual payment of $800,000 and $200,000 of habitat improvement projects on state trust land.” In summary, the state wildlife agency will pay the equivalent of $1 million per year so the state land office will allow recreational use of state trust lands in New Mexico.

Although much of the public views state trust lands as state-owned public lands, that isn’t really the case. State trust lands are found throughout the western states, intermingled among federally administered land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Although the federal agencies have multiple-use mandates for management of public lands, state trust lands have a very different mandate: that of generating revenue to support their state’s public schools and other public institutions.

The website of the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners sets out the history of state trust lands in Wyoming: “When Wyoming became a state on July 10, 1890, the federal government granted approximately 4.2 million acres of land to the State of Wyoming. The Wyoming Constitution and state laws direct the Board of Land Commissioners (Board) to manage state trust lands for two key purposes consistent with traditional trust principles: 1) long-term growth in value, and 2) optimum, sustainable revenue production.

“The Office of State Lands and Investments is required by law to manage state trust lands to produce income to support public schools and other public institutions.”

Thus, Wyoming’s state trust lands are not managed for recreation. Although organized, developed, or commercial recreational use is authorized under state permitting and leasing systems, generating revenue for the state trust, casual recreational use of state trust lands does not generate revenue for the state trust.

Casual recreational use of Wyoming’s state trust lands was not authorized until the Board adopted rules in 1988 to allow this use, subject to a variety of restrictions (including prohibitions on open fires and overnight camping, among others). The Board rules note that such casual use is a “privilege” it grants. What makes Wyoming different from most western states is that casual recreational use is provided without a provision for generating revenue in the process.

Wyoming stands alone as a state that has held onto millions of acres of state trust land and allows casual recreational use without requiring that use to generate revenue for the trust account. The only other western state that allows free use to a large amount of state trust lands is Oregon. Oregon has only 741,000 acres of state trust lands remaining from its original grant of 3.4 million acres, and allows for free recreational use of these mostly isolated parcels in the southeastern portion of the state.

In 2019, a group of Wyoming legislators put forth a bill that would have required our state’s wildlife agency to enter into an agreement to reimburse the board of land commissioners for access provided to hunters and anglers on state trust lands, and which would have required implementation of a $6 recreation permit system for those lands, with the revenues to benefit the state land trust beneficiaries, but the bill died in committee.

In Idaho, the state wildlife agency pays the state land board 25 cents per acre to allow recreational access on 2.3 million acres of state trust land, or about $580,000 annually.

In Utah, the state wildlife agency pays $1.8 million per year to the state trust agency to allow hunter access to 3.4 million acres of state trust lands.

Of the 3 million acres of state trust lands in Colorado, only 774,000 acres are available for public access through a lease agreement with Colorado Parks & Wildlife. That lease agreement has the state wildlife agency paying up to $11 million for the 10-year lease term, and allows public access to state trust lands only for hunting, fishing and watchable wildlife activities. The leased lands are open to hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing, provided that those 18 years or older have a valid hunting or fishing license, but general recreation such as hiking, horseback riding and dog walking are not allowed.

Montana takes a different approach, diverting $2 from each hunting, fishing, or trapping permit to the state trust land account, but requires a $5-20 permit for other recreational use. Arizona is similar in that it requires a $15 recreation permit for use of 10.9 million acres of state trust land. Washington officials require a $30 annual permit for vehicle accessits trust lands, which total 3.3 million acres.

Two western states have very little of their original state trust lands remaining: Nevada and California. Of its original 3.9 million acres in the original grant of 1802, Nevada aggressively sold the properties, depositing revenues into its Permanent School Fund. Only 3,000 acres of state trust lands remain. California sold most of its original 5.5 million acres of state trust lands, and now has jurisdiction over about 460,000 acres. Most of California’s state trust lands (340,000 acres) consist of fragmented and isolated parcels inside the boundaries of national parks, preserves, monuments, and forests in the California desert, and are not managed by the state.

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