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The U.S. government’s Bureau of Land Management apparently cannot avoid the burning questions and public scrutiny in Wyoming.

On Monday, the Joint Agriculture Committee of the Wyoming Legislature questioned BLM officials about the agency’s plans to sell more than 300 acres of federal land to energy giant PacifiCorp in Sweetwater County. The estimated market value of the 307.5-acre property is $115,000, and that’s exactly what it’s being sold for.

The sale, announced in April, is intended to increase the efficiency of the neighboring Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs, which is owned by PacifiCorp. A PacifiCorp spokesperson told Cowboy State Daily at the time that owning the property would simplify processes when the Jim Bridger Power Plant reaches the end of its operating life in 2036.

None of this could allay the concerns of some members of the Agriculture Committee.

Republican state Rep. Allen Slagle of Newcastle complained that the public had not been adequately informed about the sale.

“I find it a little ironic that a major corporation would come to the BLM to sell land, and I only recently learned about it,” Slagle said.

PacifiCorp submitted the purchase application to the BLM in May 2019 and it was not made public until April.

PacifiCorp and its subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power have drawn negative attention in Wyoming in recent years over a variety of issues, including controversial electricity rate hikes. PacifiCorp is working with TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates, to build a sodium demonstration plant in nearby Kemmerer.

The land in question is considered available under Sweetwater County’s current Resource Management Plan, which determines which lands are owned by the BLM and can be sold.

Marton comparison

During Monday’s discussion, references were made a few times to the Marton Ranch land swap outside Casper, which was planned for 2023 and required legislative approval to go ahead. As a result of that sale, a nearly 37,000-acre parcel of land along the North Platte River was sold to the BLM last year and opened to the public.

Senator Bob Ide (R-Casper) implored the BLM to continue to seek parliamentary approval for such sales, since the U.S. Constitution’s Enclave Law requires the federal government to obtain parliamentary approval to purchase state land.

“I would hope you would keep that in mind as you gobble up more private land in Wyoming,” Ide said.

Wyoming BLM Director Andrew Archuleta said there is no such requirement under federal law for the direct sale of federal land to a private buyer.

Slagle mentioned that a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service in his area has been pending for about 25 years.

“It looks like this (PacificCorp’s land purchase) was an accelerated deal for a large company compared to the land swap in the northeast of the state involving several small landowners,” he said.

Archuleta said the BLM is working to streamline its process for transactions involving federal land, but those transactions can be very difficult because each sale must be done at fair market value. If a particular traded land is sold below value, additional parcels must be found to be included in a sale.

“Land swaps get very complicated very quickly,” he said.

Direct land sales to private buyers are far less common, Archuleta said.

sovereignty

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, co-chair of the Agriculture Committee, said Wyoming has “felt a little bit left out” of some key BLM decisions in recent years. She expressed sympathy for Wyoming’s local BLM employees, who work under the direction of the presidential administration in the Oval Office but still receive the bulk of public feedback.

“We appreciate your willingness to work with us and look for other ways and means by which we can maintain some degree of sovereignty and say on some of these issues,” she said.

Last fall, many Wyoming residents reacted with outrage when the BLM announced a controversial Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Rock Springs area.

Senator Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) asked what would happen to the land if it were transferred to PacifiCorp.

Archuleta said he didn’t know off the top of his head, but stressed that BLM staff have reviewed it to ensure the land’s use is consistent with the current Rock Springs RMP.

What is it for?

PacifiCorp spokesman David Eskelsen told Cowboy State Daily that the BLM purchase involves land adjacent to a wastewater evaporation pond at the Jim Bridger plant that is used to dispose of materials from the plant’s sulfur dioxide emission control systems.

PacifiCorp has a right-of-way agreement with the BLM on the property that allows for the construction, operation and maintenance of the pond and associated equipment.

“The most important benefit of owning the land is the ultimate closure of the pond,” Eskelsen said. “Owning the land facilitates the disposal of remaining materials, the installation of monitoring or pumping wells if necessary, and the construction of access roads or other infrastructure that may be needed.”

Brad Purdy, BLM’s deputy state communications director, emphasized to the committee that PacifiCorp was granted a right-of-way on the property several years ago and the company has already acquired small sections where possible.

“PacifiCorp just found it a little easier for themselves and just bought the property,” Purdy said. “As long as PacifiCorp was willing to pay fair market value, which they were, we’ll just go ahead and do it.”

Archuleta said the BLM typically conducts a no-competition sale when a particular industry wants to acquire land adjacent to a property it already owns and there is no other interested party in the property.

The comment period for the sale ended June 3. Archuleta said the sale will be completed in the next few months.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at [email protected].

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