DAYTON — When news first broke about the Columbus Peak Ranch, LLC land swap in April 2021, Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, heard a repeated question from his constituents.
Why didn’t they know this sooner?
the land exchange, which is proposing to swap 628.35 acres of private land east of Dayton for 560 acres of state-owned land northwest of Dayton, has recreationists and hunters worried about the impact what this might have on their ability to optimize hunting grounds along the Bighorn Mountains. And yet, none of them knew about it until a year and a half into the process, Western said.
“About two years ago, the plaintiff submitted a request for a land swap, but it wasn’t until last April that it became public,” Western said. “The public didn’t know about the exchange until three-quarters of the way through, and the cake was already done by then.”
As local sportspeople continue to work with Columbus Peak Ranch to reach a compromise that makes both parties happy, Western is working to ensure this kind of situation never happens again.
During the legislative session beginning Feb. 14, Western plans to introduce legislation requiring the Office of State Lands and Investments to notify the public that it has received a land swap application within one month of receiving it. . This will prevent land swaps from happening mostly behind closed doors, without public participation.
“Negotiating these land deals without public participation erodes confidence in the Office of State Lands,” Western said. “They have to be honest and transparent from start to finish, and that’s what I try to accomplish with my legislation.”
The need for transparency has been a frequent refrain of recreation enthusiasts and local hunters since the public announcement of the Columbus Peak exchange.
“Since the state government has been involved in this exchange, I’m sure there have been many interactions that the general public will never hear about,” Dayton landowner Mike Barrett wrote in a June 1, 2021 letter to the Office of State Lands and Investments. “The government always says they are ‘transparent’ but if they are so transparent why have the seven adjacent landowners never been informed of a huge potential change in management practices on their property boundaries ?”
“It’s been a stealthy process to say the least,” Sheridan’s Jim Jurosek wrote in a May 25 email to the state’s Office of Lands and Investments. “Secret. It has been in the works for a few years, but very few people knew about it. The people of Sheridan County just found out about this last month when the Sheridan Press reported on it and Rep. Cyrus Western got involved because he could see the injustice in this.
Western acknowledged that his bill faced an uphill battle this session, as the Legislative Assembly 20 days to discuss topics as varied as the state budget, American Rescue Plan Act dollars, and redistricting. He hoped the Legislative Assembly would find the time to bring a little more transparency to a contentious process.
“I feel relatively optimistic,” Western said. “People I’ve spoken to so far like the idea. After all, who doesn’t love more transparency in state government? And when you’re talking about state lands that are collectively worth billions of dollars, it’s important that the process is transparent from start to finish.