Wyo. spends millions cleaning state trust lands

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 3:40 PM

Kyle Roerink

CASPER, Wyo. -- Abandoned household appliances are a common site amid the bluffs, gulches and ridges on state Sen. Charles Scott’s Natrona County ranch. Washing machines and refrigerators are riddled with bullet holes and left behind for someone else to remove. The ground is covered with shotgun shells, broken glass and other refuse on some parcels. Empty Remington boxes sit by cow pies.

Scott leases land for two ranches from the Office of State Lands and Investments. The public has access and uses certain areas as unofficial shooting ranges. His ranch is one of "a small percentage" the public abuses, he said. But the results are salient.

The state has spent more than $3 million this year cleaning trust lands left in disarray by the public. Much of the lands are occupied by ranchers who have active grazing leases to raise cattle. If the abusers continue their trashy ways, the state will close more parcels of land to the public.

"If you put a no trespassing sign, it would be shot to all ends," Scott said.

Debris meddles with pastures on both of Scott’s ranches. There are bluffs shooters use as backdrops for target practice. He thinks it’s a "great place to shoot" because it’s safe. The bullets fly into tall mounds of shale.

"The problem is that 1, 2, 5 percent of the people that go up there are just scum," he said. "We get old cars, refrigerators, old bottles. Some is dumping, and some are just used as targets."

The state closes about six parcels a year because of dumping and littering, said Marty Matsen, assistant director for the Office of State Lands and Investments. The State Board of Land Commissioners authorized the closure of 240 acres of land to motorized vehicles on parcels near Burlington in 2009. There are more than 3.5 million acres of trust land and all but 55,000 acres are used for grazing.

The money the state acquires from grazing leases funds elementary and high school programs and veteran housing. It’s the fiduciary responsibility of the State Board of Land Commissioners to make money, Matsen said.

"The crux of the rock in the hard place is we want the public to use the land but, when they abuse the land, we have to spend money instead of make money," Matsen said.

The state restored a parcel of land in Burlington at a cost of $147,500 in September.

Misuse of trust land is concentrated near the state’s bigger cities and towns. "If it’s within 10 miles of a school, we’re going to have some problems," Matsen said.

People who use public land to dump tires, appliances and animal carcasses are generally avoiding the costs to have it hauled away, said Shelly Gregory, a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson. Wyoming residents use BLM land as their private dumping grounds as well. Last month, 53 volunteers collected 12 truckloads of trash from two sites on White Mountain near Rock Springs. The Sweetwater County Landfill waived the fee.

The state generates a couple million dollars a year from the grazing leases, which is nothing compared to the multimillions earned from energy production on state lands, Matsen said. "The value we’re getting from the lesseesis not monetary. The grazing operators are acting as stewards of the land," he said.

As a rancher, Scott doesn’t have time to police the land. "We got to make a living," he said. The solution, in his opinion, is not closing safe environments for shooting. He said sportsmen should propose an additional lease for shooting, in addition to the grazing lease.

An organization of shooters who use the land and vow to clean it a few times a year might be the "best solution," he said.

Volunteers of all types have spent considerable amounts of time and effort cleaning the trust lands. The Security Forces Group from the F.E. Warren Air Force Base cleaned a section of trust land in Cheyenne in May. To complete his Eagle Scout project, 17-year-old Nate Hanley organized a cleanup on the same land where Scott has his grazing leases. He and 38 volunteers removed more than six tons of refuse. Less than a month later, the piles of debris accumulated once again.

"In my opinion, it’s shocking what has happened and shameful it was caused by human hands," Hanley said.

Hanley said he and the other volunteers made significant progress on the land, but more could be done to ameliorate it. It would be frustrating if the state closed the land, Hanley said, but "it would be for the best."

Hanley’s reclamation project was not the first on Scott’s ranches. Six years ago, 225 volunteers removed more than 35 tons of garbage and scrap metal.

"It’s best that we won’t have to clean at all," Hanley said.

A fire on Scott’s land ignited next to disheveled palates, paper targets and shotgun shells late Monday afternoon. It was contained Tuesday. Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire. "Whether it’s a cigarette, tracer rounds or a catalytic converter," Scott said the cause has to be from humans.

"There hasn’t been any lightning here for weeks," he said.

As he walked the scorched land, he looked at the charred grasses that nourish his family’s cows. Sounds of a shotgun rang in the distance.

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