SHERIDAN – A proposed land exchange near Dayton has recreationists and hunters concerned about future access to areas along the face of the Bighorn Mountains, and has given rise to questions regarding the public process of such exchanges.
The Columbus Peak Ranch, LLC land exchange proposes trading 628.35 acres of privately-owned land located east of Dayton for 560 acres of state trust land located northwest of Dayton.
While the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s letter of review for the proposed exchange says the state “parcel does not contain any crucial wildlife habitat,” approximately three dozen individuals who attended a town hall meeting organized by Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, May 7 disagreed.
“This is not a truly fair swap for sportsmen,” Western said Tuesday. “To be clear, this is certainly not the worst swap that’s been proposed, but it is not one that is truly fair in terms of a hunting value for hunting value exchange.”
A formal public hearing on the proposal took place virtually Thursday, and written public comment will be accepted through June 14 before the State Board of Land Commissioners — made up of the top five elected officials in the state — makes a final decision on the swap in August.
Dayton resident Rick Parish said Tuesday he’s concerned about the proposal both as a member of the Bowhunters of Wyoming and as a private citizen who often utilizes the state land in question.
Parish said he and others have noted the state land hosts a resident elk herd, along with deer, antelope and other wildlife.
“This land is wild, beautiful, and virtually teeming with non-game birds and wildlife as well,” nearby landowner Rick Clark wrote in a letter addressed to the Office of State Lands and Investments, adding that in comparison the land that is currently privately owned, “is a typical dryland area which may harbor a few deer/antelope and a few upland birds.”
Nearby landowners and recreationists have felt compelled to share such information, even if anecdotal, because the WGFD letter in the analysis of the proposal indicates, “both lands provide relatively similar hunting opportunities for mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, elk and upland game birds.”
“They (SLIB) rely a lot on — you know they are five elected officials who have major jobs — so they rely on staff reports a lot, and I think the staff reports on this are lacking,” Parish said.
The appraisal of the lands in question indicate the state land has a market value of $2,296,000 while the Columbus Peak Ranch property has a market value of $1,885,050. Therefore, even if the proposed swap occurs, Columbus Peak Ranch will pay the state $410,950, which would then be deposited into the Public Buildings at the Capitol and the Agricultural College Permanent Land Funds for use.
Columbus Peak Ranch has acquired the lands it intends to swap over the last several years, with the Sheridan County GIS map indicating deed dates between March 2018 — which is the same month and year the application was submitted to the state — and June 2020. Columbus Peak Ranch also owns much of the land around the state parcel and has grazing leases on the section proposed for trade.
Evaluations done on both the state trust land and the land owned by Columbus Peak Ranch include a section regarding the highest and best use of the parcels of land. For the state land, the highest and best use is listed as agricultural. For the Columbus Peak Ranch property, it is listed as real estate development.
“If the highest and best use of that land is development, it only makes sense in the hands of the private sector,” Western said. “Is the state going to get into residential real estate prospecting? I don’t think so.”
The analysis completed by the state indicates the proposed exchange would enhance public access to state lands because the newly acquired parcel could be easily accessed by Dayton East Road.
By comparison, the current state land is accessible by Columbus Creek Road, and the parcel discussed for the trade requires a 2- to 3-mile hike for access.
For many who utilize the land, though, that hike does not make the land less valuable.
“Too easy of access leads to shooting ranges being set up, trash and over use,” Parish said. “That hasn’t happened in other areas — like this one — because you have to walk in.”
Western agreed, asserting the question of access should not always consider the mode of transportation — meaning by car or by foot.
“I think the concept of access is: Is there access at all? And right now there is,” Western said of the current state land west of Dayton. “Yes, you have to hike. Yes, you have to be committed. But there is access. Just because a county road doesn’t go right through it doesn’t mean there isn’t access.”
Others noted dwindling access to the face of the Bighorn Mountains.
A letter included in the state’s analysis from the Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails, included relaying questions and comments from the Sheridan Community Land Trust.
One such comment relayed in the letter stated, “In general public access to the public lands on the mountain face can be hard to come by,” and inquired whether Columbus Peak Ranch would consider a trade of a different parcel that increased this access.
Parish also pointed out that as Sheridan County’s population continues to grow, the demand for access to lands like those currently owned by the state will only increase and if the proposed exchange is approved, there is no getting that land back for public use.
“It sets a bad precedent and represents a loss of future generations,” Parish said.
Parish and Western also expressed concern with the process in place for land exchanges.
While the initial application is dated March 2018, the first public notice of the proposal appeared as a legal notice in The Sheridan Press April 19. That legal notice opened a comment period for the project and set a June 14 deadline for written comments.
Western pointed out that the public did not become aware of the proposal for more than two years following the initial application.
“I’m not opposed to land swaps across the board,” Western said. “They do have a proper role, but we need to ensure they are truly fair and transparent. The way it is set up in statute, we’re not accomplishing either.”
He added that he intends to introduce changes to statute that would require public notice as soon as the application is filed with the state.