Columbus Peak Ranch exchange

This photo was taken from the state trust land under consideration for a land swap with Columbus Peak Ranch, LLC.

“Hey Dad, what’s this funny rock?”

“Looks like you found a coral fossil.”

“But why does it have sharp edges, Mom?”

“Probably to protect itself from other sea animals.”

“Sea animals, Mom? In the Bighorn Mountains?”

So begins another generational learning opportunity. Such valuable family conversations or teacher/student interactions may become much less common as more public lands are privatized in Wyoming. Currently in Sheridan County, the Columbus Peak Ranch, LLC, has proposed the exchange of 560 acres of pristine Wyoming Trust Land along the face of the Bighorns with large reservoirs for 628 acres of dry rangeland east of Dayton and $410,950.

Yes, the state of Wyoming is empowered to sell and/or trade state trust lands at their discretion. However, many wildlife groups are strongly opposed to this particular exchange including the Wyoming Bow Hunters (unanimously), Outback Hunters and Anglers (unanimously) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. There appears to be growing opposition as well by many other individuals to this exchange for a number of reasons.

The trade involves unequal lands and will result in 560 acres of State Trust Land at the base of the Bighorns being lost to the public as well as the 628 acre trade parcel on Dayton East Road which, according to the OSLI, will be used as real estate income for the state. Apparently, because some utilities are already in place on Dayton East Road including a new natural gas line, the Office of State Lands and Investments in Cheyenne feels they can profit from the sale of these properties along Dayton East Road. Because this trade parcel is being developed and the trust land will be privatized, there will be a loss of both parcels for outdoor lovers, and a loss of acres for elk and wildlife. This comes at a time in Sheridan County when the public is already losing a large part of the walk-in area around Acme as a result of the sale of Big Horn Coal Company’s portion of that walk-in.

The landowner presently has the use of this state trust land above Smith Creek for pasture through a grazing lease. According to the “Detailed Analysis,” the appraised value of the land he purchased and the cash involved come to $2.296 million, enough to lease the state trust land at the present rate for over 900 years. As an area rancher agreed, “They should just lease it.”

The "Detailed Analysis” by the state is very confusing for the public; and it even misses the location of the state trust land by 8 miles. The public only has two months to provide input on this exchange, but the property being exchanged on Dayton East Road is owned by Columbus Peak Ranch, LLC who proposed this land swap; and public access is restricted. This land was appraised at over $1.8 million in 2020 yet the public has been prevented from seeing much of it. Who, in this case the residents of Wyoming, would buy or trade anything of great value such as a car, a house, much less a piece of land worth $1.8 million, without taking a close look? The entire land exchange process needs to be revised to provide earlier opportunities for public input as well as public access to any private parcels.

From a geological and historical perspective, this state trust parcel and its adjoining state lands were part of an ancient body of water, the Western Interior Seaway, that ran roughly from Alaska to Mexico. Many millions of years later and after several crust upheavals, this parcel became a major migration route for nomadic Native Americans and a significant migration route for U.S. citizens along the Bozeman Trail, which lies about 1 mile north. If this land exchange is approved; any historical, archeological or paleontological discoveries will be the private property of the landowner and may never be known to the general public. Both vertebrate and invertebrate fossils from the Western Interior Seaway have reportedly been seen on the larger state trust land. This state trust parcel holds significant potential value to future generations.

From Sheridan County public records, the landowner’s family, under different corporate entities, appears to already own over 20,000 total acres from Dayton to the Montana state line. “The Land Report-the Magazine of the American Landowner” ranked the family 26th in land ownership in the U.S. in 2020 with Jeff Bezos of Amazon at 25th. As much as one may or may not admire these achievements, they are nonetheless notable as are the family’s contributions to the oil industry in the state. But, with all respect, Wyoming Trust Land such as this, with its deep blue reservoirs and itinerant elk herd should remain in the hands of the state and the public that it represents.

In 2016, a land swap, that would trade land in the Laramie Range with Black Hills property in Crook County, reached the final phase of the exchange process with the Office of State Lands and Investments. The proposal was in some ways similar to the Columbus Peak Ranch, LLC exchange. However, the State Board of Land Commissioners unanimously rejected it after strong public opposition. You can make a difference!

The June 14 deadline for public input is approaching so please send an email or attached letter to jason.crowder@wyo.gov or make a comment at lands.wyo.gov. After June 14, please call or send emails or letters to your top five Wyoming state elected officials who compose the State Board of Land Commissioners before their August meeting to vote on this land swap.

Rick Clark is a craftsman, musician, student and former teacher with degrees from the College of William and Mary and the University of Wyoming. He lives west of Dayton and has three grown children.

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