SHERIDAN — Public and privately-owned lands speckle the landscape across Sheridan County. The history of claiming lands in the United States dates back to the beginning of the country’s history, and processes have evolved over time to help regulate the sale of public lands to private landowners.
Wyoming has the seventh highest percentage of public land in the country at 55.9, according to the 1991 U.S. Census, although Wyoming Bureau of Land Management officials currently estimate more of a 50/50 split. Casey Freise, acting field manager of the BLM office in Buffalo, estimated that less than 10 percent of Sheridan County, though, is controlled publicly either by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.
Keeping public lands accessible to citizens has been a contentious issue for decades, and the Office of State Lands and Investments approves land sales based on several components. The Trust Land Management Division sells land to diversify trust assets, consolidate lands or improve access to other trust lands.
According to Wyoming’s OSLI, consolidated ownership can improve financial returns, increase management efficiency and provide values such as fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, recreation and forest resources. The office sells land through competitive or non-competitive pricing. If public land is surrounded by private land, BLM either sells that land to the private landowner at a non-competitive price or attempts to acquire the land back from private ownership to help restore public access. Most sales are done through competitive fair market value pricing.
Sales of public lands to private ownership must go through a rigorous process established by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The act establishes lands to be sold or disposed of only if the particular parcel will serve the national interest, which is determined through periodic and systematic inventory collaboratively done between state and federal entities.
Sales typically go from public to private entities, not the other way around, especially in the West.
“I think (private ownership back to public is) a little bit more rare, especially out West,” Wyoming BLM public affairs specialist Brad Purdy said. “I think you see that more in other agencies and more on the East Coast where maybe somebody has a private in holding that’s surrounded by forest and maybe leave it in their will to give it back to the Forest Service.”
Freise said the eastern portion of Wyoming has significantly more privately-owned land due to homesteading established during the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916. The act provided settlers 640 acres of public land for ranching services. The eastern side of Wyoming is also known to have better soil and moisture, which translates to better production for agricultural purposes.
The resource management plan for the Buffalo office, approved in 2015, was set up to help provide land use planning and management direction on a broad scale while also guiding future actions for BLM. In that plan, Freise said BLM is attempting to reclaim land to regain access to those areas completely surrounded by private owners. Freise said they haven’t completed any land exchanges for that reason in Sheridan County yet but continue to look into it. Local public lands advocate Ted Lapis learned to start acting on lands where he wanted more public access. He and other advocates did so with a parcel of land now called Three Poles in Sheridan County. A group came together to advocate that the public parcel of land be used for motorized vehicle recreation. The Sheridan County Commission now rents out 18.1 acres from the state, changing from its former use by WBI Energy Midstream to a motorized vehicle recreation area.
Lapis and other local individuals and groups will continue advocating for better access to public lands. Local BLM offices will also seek land transfers that are conducive to both public and private land ownership in Wyoming.