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One of the very first moves by the new Republican Congress was to make it easier to transfer ownership of federal public lands in the West over to states. And the state of Wyoming has become a flashpoint in this debate. Lawmakers there want to amend the state's constitution to authorize the transfer, but there's a lot of opposition because public land would lose federal protection. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, this move is angering hunters who bring in tens of millions of dollars to the state's economy.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Visit Wyoming, and chances are you're going to meet someone like Buzz Hettick pretty quick. He's shot just about every critter you can think of.
BUZZ HETTICK: My one wall over here, I have a desert bighorn sheep from Arizona, a black bear from Montana.
SIEGLER: Everything mounted here, he boasts proudly, was hunted off of U.S. public lands. From Buzz Hettick's place on the edge of the windswept college town of Laramie, you hardly have to drive a few minutes before you're right in the middle of those public lands, the remote country run by the Federal Bureau of Land Management.
HETTICK: I believe we're heading into a set of a old Western. Yep, this is usually where we see the bighorns is right in here in this canyon. A lot of wildlife uses public lands.
SIEGLER: So do hunters. Hunting is big business in Wyoming. A recent study estimated it brings in roughly $25 million into Albany County's economy alone. A sharp turn onto a rutted-out jeep trail and Hettick is now driving straight up a mountain. He's scoping out an elk hunt for later in the week. Some buddies are coming in from out of state.
HETTICK: What I like to do is get up high on some kind of a point where I can see a lot of country and then sit down and just start glassing.
SIEGLER: Glassing - slang for using binoculars. Hettick grew up hunting and camping in Montana. He later moved to Wyoming to work for the Forest Service. But lately, it's his volunteer job that's taking up all his time. He heads up the state chapter of an influential national lobbying group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
HETTICK: I just don't see how people can look at this here and just say, well, all they see is a dollar sign attached to it. There's a lot more than that.
SIEGLER: When it comes to politics, those dollar signs in federal lands are inextricably linked in the West. There's always pressure to lease more land to private oil and gas and coal companies and lately wind, but sportsmen like Hettick now see a new threat.
HETTICK: Anytime that there is even a whisper of anybody that wants to transfer federal lands to the states, you're going to raise the ire and the hackles of the outdoor community in general, and in particular hunters and fishermen.
SIEGLER: It's more than just a whisper right now. Before the election, Republicans included a provision in the RNC platform calling for the transfer of ownership of federal lands to states. One of the biggest questions surrounding this is whether a rural state like Wyoming with a small budget could really afford to manage all this land. Buzz Hettick thinks no, and he's worried the state would have to sell it, and then there'd be no guarantee that hunters or anyone could access it.
HETTICK: I would say it's probably the biggest battle that sportsmen are going to have to face in my lifetime.
SIEGLER: Hettick's battle is starting in the Wyoming legislature. Lawmakers are considering a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for Wyoming to own and manage federal public land. Hettick mobilized sportsmen from around the state to brave the snowy roads and travel to the capital, Cheyenne, for a recent hearing. Clad in camo, they wore keep public lands public stickers and lined up to testify.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We don't support any of the language because we don't support the amendment.
SIEGLER: Neither does Wyoming's Republican governor, who in an interview with the Casper Star Tribune questioned the legality of transferring federal lands in the first place. He also wondered how his state would pay for things like wildfires, a bill that's usually picked up by the feds. State Senator Larry Hicks, who's pushing the amendment, says he's done the math. He says an energy-rich state like Wyoming can afford to take over the land because of the increased tax revenues that will come off it.
LARRY HICKS: We run about a $3 billion budget and we're sending a billion dollars of federal minerals back to Washington, D.C. That's a 25 percent increase in our state revenues right off the bat.
SIEGLER: But for Hicks, this is about a lot more than economics, it's a cultural battle. He says rural communities that depend on mining, logging and drilling on federal lands are suffering. People are moving out, schools are shutting down. And he says the federal government's too restrictive.
HICKS: A lot of people just feel like they have no more voice, it's detrimental. I mean, there are multiple generations of families, and they feel like that their heritage and their lifestyle's just been stolen from them.
SIEGLER: Republican or Democrat, bashing the federal government is popular political sport in Wyoming. And like any relationship, Wyoming's with Washington, D.C. is complicated. In quite a few small towns here, the federal government is the largest employer. And the state depends heavily on federal dollars for everything from highways to health care to education.
GREGG CAWLEY: I'm Gregg Cawley, professor of political science at the University of Wyoming.
SIEGLER: Cawley has studied anti-federal government movements in the West since the 1970s.
CAWLEY: Every time the federal government does something that irritates Western ranchers, miners, what have you, this issue of transfer of the lands to the States is brought up again, dusted off and put forward.
SIEGLER: There's one big thing that makes it this time around a little different though, according to Cawley, and that's the unpredictable political mood in the country right now.
HETTICK: That wind's definitely picked up since we got here.
SIEGLER: Buzz Hettick, the hunter, says he's not counting on anything when it comes to federal lands. He points to what happened in Oregon, where a jury recently acquitted Ammon Bundy and his anti-government followers for their armed occupation of a Federal wildlife refuge.
HETTICK: You know what we used to call, you know, maybe five or six years ago the fringe-right or the fringe operators in this whole thing? They're starting to become more mainstream now. And I think that's why we have to really ramp up the pressure we put on our politicians.
SIEGLER: Hettick says you can bet that sportsmen will pressure Washington in even bigger numbers if the federal lands transfer proposal moves forward in Congress. But today, here, he's focused on a smaller quest.
HETTICK: If you look over at the top of this hill right over here, and there is a herd of about, oh, looks to be at least eight or 10 elk right there.
SIEGLER: The trip out here fighting all that icy wind wasn't for nothing. There are elk in these hills, maybe he'll bag one just yet this season. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Laramie, Wyo.
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