• Range Writing

Sagebrush Rebellion Rides Again

The Sagebrush Rebellion movement calling for transfer of federal lands to the states has arisen again in the Wyoming Legislature. Uinta County Representative Bob Wharff (R-House District 49) has filed draft legislation that would require the federal government to transfer public lands within the state to the State of Wyoming. Federal lands with special designations enacted by Congress would be exempt from the transfer.

According to the bill, “On or before December 31, 2023, the United States shall extinguish title to all public lands and transfer title to public lands to the state of Wyoming.”

HB141, transfer of federal lands, is cosponsored by Mark Baker (R-HD60, Sweetwater), John Eklund (R-HD10, Laramie & Goshen) and Lloyd Laursen (R-HD54, Fremont). The bill was filed on Friday, and has not yet been scheduled for consideration.


The bill would create a joint select committee on the transfer of public lands, which would prepare legislation to create a public lands commission to administer the transfer of title of public lands, address management of those lands, and establish “actions that shall be taken to secure, preserve and protect the state’s rights and benefits related to the United States’ duty to have extinguished title to public lands” under the proposed law “in the event the United States does not meet the requirements” of the proposed law.


Section 26 of the Wyoming Constitution disclaimed ownership of public lands upon statehood:

“The people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.”

That Wyoming had no further claims on the ownership of public lands in the state was made clear the 1890 enabling actenacted by Congress in admitting Wyoming into the union of states. Section 12 of that act states:

“That the State of Wyoming shall not be entitled to any further or other grants of land for any purpose than as expressly provided in this act…”

The enabling act called for 5% of the proceeds “of the sales of public lands lying within said State which shall be sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said State into the Union” shall be paid to the State for the permanent fund to benefit schools, but did not commit the federal government to selling any further land.


Wharff’s bill claims that Wyoming “has not received the full benefit of the provisions of the enabling act, related to the disposal of lands from the federal government,” and states that “federal funding and the resulting capacity for responsible management of federal public lands are in serious jeopardy” while critical threats to those lands continue to escalate.


This bill is one of many such attempts in western states over the last 40 years, and closely mirrors a law passed in Utah in 2012 that called for the federal government to transfer the title to public lands by the end of 2014. The deadline passed without the transfer, as the Congressional Research Service noted “because states cannot obtain ownership of federal lands by state law.”


The bill calls for a variety of exemptions to the land transfer, including lands to which the title is held by a person who is not a governmental entity, lands owned or held in trust by the state, a political subdivision of the state or an independent entity, and lands reserved for use for public education.


According to the bill, state trust lands would be exempted, as would Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Devils Tower National Monument, Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Fossil Butte National Monument, designated wilderness areas, lands owned by the military or department of energy, and lands belonging to Indian tribes.

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