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Wyoming officials set to decide fate of contentious Dayton land swap

Critics say the plan is a lousy trade that benefits wealthy landowners at the expense of area residents and visitors.

Elk hang out in January on state land that would be traded to the Columbus Peak Ranch. (Rick Clark/State Lands Action Team)

by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile

Armed with an updated appraisal, Wyoming officials are set to decide the fate of a contentious 1,188-acre land exchange near Dayton that the public overwhelmingly opposes and calls unfair and even contrary to state law.

The Columbus Peak Ranch land exchange would see the state swap its wildlife- and scenery-rich 560 acres in the eastern foothills of the Bighorn Mountains for 628 acres of private land that critics call a “sagebrush ditch.”

Appraisers calculate the value of the state’s 560-acre foothill property between $3.36 million and $3.53 million. The 628-acre private parcel owned by Columbus Peak is valued between $2.64 million and $2.98 million, state documents show. Critics say Columbus Peak Ranch LLC, which proposed the trade, was able to choose the appraiser, who comes from another county.

Columbus Peak Ranch would make up the difference in the value of the exchange parcels with a “Cash Equalization Payment,” plus as much as $295,000 extra, according to a summary of the proposal. Wyoming calculates an annual increase in net benefits to the state at almost $46,000.

“So many acres of gold for so many acres of coal.”

ZACH DORR

Critics, however, say the appraisals are off base, the state foothills land is far richer and more valuable than appraisers have considered and the swap doesn’t meet laws governing the State Board of Land Commissioners that must approve the plan.

“If this were a ‘good’ [e]xchange, it would have been approved long ago,” a coalition of opponents said in a March 24 letter contesting the swap that was first proposed in 2019. “It is not a good [e]xchange either legally or in the eyes of the public, and you will be right to vote it down on April 4,” the letter to the state board reads.

One tranche of comments the state has received over the years ran 90-8 against the exchange. Other tallies of opponents show similar lopsided opinions. Many of those weighing in complain the swap would benefit a powerful and well-connected family at the expense of the common citizen.

Rich man, poor man

A suite of rules, laws and regulations govern the exchange of state property, including constitutional mandates to increase revenue to state trust beneficiaries, like students, and to keep Wyoming’s property consolidated. Acquiring valuable and usable lands while eliminating those that create undo management burdens or are unable to produce optimal revenue are among the objectives.

The state foothills parcel lies in rolling country regularly used by elk and deer within two miles of public national forest land west of Dayton in Sheridan County. The private Columbus Peak Ranch property is 7 miles from the national-forest-managed mountains, east of Dayton, and near a highway and utilities that make it more compatible for development. Wildlife is much rarer on the private plains parcel, critics say.

A map showing the state, disposal, parcel that would become private and the Columbus Peak Ranch, acquisition, land that the state would own. (OSLI)

Ross Matthews, a member of the Columbus Peak Ranch LLC, said professional state evaluators advocate for the swap. He is the husband of K.M. Holding, another Columbus Peak Ranch LLC member, who is part of the renowned business family that owns Idaho’s Sun Valley ski area and put its mark on Sinclair Oil and Wyoming’s famous Little America hotel in Cheyenne, according to online public-records search sites and other public documents.

Drawing from “impartial public servants and the input of other relevant state agencies — [the Office of State Lands and Investments] concluded that the proposed exchange achieves each of ‘the Trust Land Management Objectives by meeting the beneficiaries’ short and long-term objectives,’” he wrote.

Matthews discounted criticism that the property he would swap away has less wildlife value than the land he would acquire, saying Wyoming Game and Fish Department believes “both lands provide relatively similar hunting opportunities for mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, elk, and upland game birds.”

Critics have alleged the swap would impede access to public state land, an issue that a conditional hunting easement proposed on the state-turned-private property would resolve, Matthews wrote. He also criticized the press, saying reports regarding the swap have been “incomplete, misleading, and — on certain points — objectively incorrect.”

An effort to reach a compromise with the legislative delegation from the Dayton-Sheridan region, which opposed the exchange in a 2021 letter, failed.

The influential Wyoming Stock Growers Association strongly supports the exchange, Executive Vice President Jim Magagna wrote.

“It clearly meets the Trust Land Management Objective criteria,” he wrote. The exchange would be “providing the trust with a parcel that has increased acreage and greater future revenue potential, and … providing an infusion of cash whose investment will produce continued returns to the designated beneficiaries.

Some neighboring ranchers also back the swap. “We feel they are excellent stewards of the land & care deeply about it, the Kalasinsky family of the Smith Canyon Ranch wrote about the Columbus Peak Ranch operators.

Vox populi opposes

Swap critics abound among hunters, wildlife advocates and the local citizenry.

“From a hunting background and outdoor recreation viewpoint, the Columbus Peak property is worth far more than the property on the Dayton east road [which] does not have a resident elk herd,” Robert R. Adney of Beaver Trap Outfitters wrote state officials.

“Our Columbus Peak land is in every way beautiful,” Jeremy Attebury, the ‘sagebrush ditch’ critic, wrote. “Their dry abused rangeland is uninspiring.”

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers urged rejection of the exchange citing “[t]he value discrepancy, the quality of the wildlife habitat, and the intrinsic backcountry value of the property that the State would lose.”

An aerial view of the private Columbus Peak Ranch property that the state would acquire in the exchange (OSLI)

The Wyoming Wildlife Federation also opposed the swap. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation urged the state to consider the recreational and hunting qualities of the property it would trade away.

Dayton resident Mike Barrett wrote that the proposed exchange “stinks on every level.”

Sheldon Bartel of Sheridan called it a travesty “[t]hat 560 deeded acres of awesome State land (including a reservoir) should be exchanged for 620 acres of dry rangeland for the benefit of a member of the Sinclair Oil clan.”

That dry rangeland the state would get is “infested with prairie dogs, rattle snakes and invasive bull frogs,” Dayton resident Rick Bilodeau wrote. “Quite honestly, I feel the decision to swap these properties is purely political and already a done deal.”

The state land board tabled the exchange at a previous meeting and has not made a final decision.

An aerial view of the state land that would be traded to Columbus Peak Ranch. (OSLI)

Pennsylvania resident Jacob Daum said he travels 1,800 miles every year to hunt on public Wyoming land, including the state parcel up for exchange where he has “taken and seen several great deer, elk and even antelope.”

Swap critic Fred Dooley called the proposal an exchange of “so many acres of gold for so many acres of coal.” Zach Dorr characterized the swap as “pristine” for “garbage.”

Eric Headlee appealed as “one of the little guys who doesn’t have the ability to buy whatever piece of property that I want – unlike the Holdings.”

Rick Clark, chairman of the ad hoc State Lands Action Team that has lobbied against the exchange, signed a six-page letter outlining discrepancies between the proposal and state laws, rules and regulations. The group challenges the appraisals, whether the state’s goals are being met and whether the public and state will benefit from a swap.

Among other things, the exchange would separate, not consolidate, Wyoming’s land holdings, making them harder to manage, he wrote.

The State’s top five elected officials – Gov. Mark Gordon, Secretary of State Chuck Gray, Treasurer Curt Meier, Auditor Kristi Racines and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder — comprise the Board of Land Commissioners and will ultimately decide the fate of the swap. The State Office of Lands and Investments is the administrative land agency the board oversees. 
The exchange is the last item on the board’s Thursday agenda in Casper. The meeting will be livestreamed.


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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