Debate over Beartooth Ranch rekindled

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Local residents and Park County commissioners have been debating the future of the infamous “drug ranch” in Clark for the better part of a year. Now, state lawmakers are jumping into the fray as well and the issue could come to a head next week.

“We damn sure stirred up a hornet’s nest, and now it looks like it got stirred up again,” said Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston.

Spurred in part by a letter drafted by the state Legislature’s agriculture committee, commissioners may decide Tuesday whether they want to ask Wyoming’s Congressional delegation to open the 657-acre property up to more uses.

Angler and conservation groups, meanwhile, say there’s no need to ease the current restrictions on the property, which provides access to recreationists.

The debate over the Beartooth Ranch was initiated last year by Lloyd Thiel, a Clark rancher and now a county commissioner-elect.

Thiel is frustrated with the way that government officials — who seized the property from a drug smuggler in the 1990s — have managed the property in recent decades. He’s expressed concerns about the Beartooth Ranch no longer being used for agricultural purposes, falling into disrepair and turning into a drain on tax dollars instead of a source of tax revenue.

Part of the issue is that when the federal government turned the seized property over to the state in 1999, it put serious restrictions on the property via a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

The terms of the MOU require that the ranch be used “solely as a public area reserved for recreational or historic purposes or for the preservation of natural conditions.” And if the state generates revenue with the property, all proceeds must be used for ranch maintenance. Failure could result in the federal government reclaiming the scenic section on the banks of the Clarks Fork River.

Moving in a different direction would require an act of Congress — and that’s what Thiel asked commissioners to pursue when he first brought the Beartooth Ranch to their attention.

Commissioners agreed and drafted a letter to Gov. Matt Mead, asking that he work with Congress to remove the restrictions and then turn the land over to Park County.

That sparked an outcry, in part because commissioners mentioned the possibility of selling off the valuable
property to a private buyer. Local anglers, conservation groups and some residents attended a commission meeting to demand the property continue to be used for public recreational access and recommending improvements.

Greater Yellowstone Coalition representative Jenny DeSarro testified last week that the habitat on the southern front of the Beartooth Mountains is an important winter range for migrating elk and has excellent connectivity for Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Jason Crowder, assistant director for the Wyoming Office of State Lands, told lawmakers last week that his office is unsure about the feasibility of agricultural use of the land.

“The nature of the ranch doesn’t lend itself to any great agricultural production,” Crowder said. “For it to be used as a standalone operation doesn’t make any sense in our minds.”

After the initial opposition last winter, commissioners decided to form a committee to come up with suggestions for managing the ranch and completely rewrote their letter to Gov. Mead. Rather than demanding the state turn over the land, the letter sent to the governor asked for his help in coming up with ways to improve it “using the current deed restrictions and easements while maintaining the public’s benefit.”

Thiel was one of the nine members that commissioners named to the Beartooth Ranch Advisory Committee.

The other committee members generally took the approach of finding ways to upgrade the facilities and increase public access at the site, not wanting to see the property developed and worrying the land could someday be sold.

“Our intentions are for the betterment of Park County — for the enjoyment of many, not just the enjoyment of one,” said Tim Wade, former commissioner and member of the East Yellowstone chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Cody Anglers Group. Wade is one of six anglers on the Beartooth Ranch Advisory Committee.

Thiel has disagreed with the committee’s approach, telling commissioners in August that, “I think ... you’ve created a monster that’s just going to cost the county and the rest of the state.”

Thiel eventually brought his concerns about the ranch to legislators on the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee, introducing himself at a Sept. 27 meeting as “just a local resident [and] taxpayer” concerned about the issue.

“My purpose here today is I would like a document of support from this committee so that I can spearhead legislation at the federal level to have these MOUs removed,” Thiel told the committee. He added that the best thing might be for the land to “be put back in public hands, but at the very least, if the MOUs were removed, the state could then at least treat this land however they wanted, like they do other state lands.”

Thiel found support in the legislative group, particularly in committee co-chairman Larry Hicks, a Republican representative from Baggs who grew up in the Powell area. Hicks said he has 50 years experience on the Beartooth Ranch — including trespassing on the property as a kid while looking for a place to fish.

“It’s a disgrace the condition it’s in and taking it out of agricultural production and off the tax base,” Hicks said, echoing Thiel’s concerns.

At its Nov. 7 meeting, the ag committee voted to approve a letter that asks Wyoming’s Congressional delegation to create a new “working group of state, federal and local government officials, Park County landowners and community organizations to develop a strategy addressing the status, permissible uses and future of Beartooth Ranch.”

The draft letter also says the committee would support federal legislation to ease the restrictions on the state-managed land, “to permit greater use of this important parcel.”

However, at Hicks’ recommendation, the ag committee held off on sending the letter until hearing what Park County commissioners want to do.

“Whether that letter moves forward lies with the approval of Park County commissioners,” said Hicks.

Meanwhile, around the same time that the ag committee was considering the draft letter, Len Fortunato and Ken Lichtendahl of the county’s advisory committee were walking Park County commissioners through a report on the ranch. They detailed clean-up efforts at the ranch, reports from biologists and use estimates. They also talked about possible funding sources for projects at the property — conveniences like picnic tables, an improved boat access area, fence repairs and vault toilets. Committee members recently contacted several entities to gauge support for funding options to improve the property, listing 12 entities interested in helping.

As soon as the presentation was over, Thiel jumped in with his own report.

“Personally and as a taxpayer, I don’t believe this is quite the right road the state or the county needs to go down,” he said.

The interruption to the agenda presentation was quickly shut down by commissioners Jake Fulkerson and Loren Grosskopf.

George Simonton, advisory committee secretary, accused Thiel of betraying the group.

“Thiel has gone behind our backs, working against the committee,” Simonton said.

Fortunato, the advisory committee chairman, agreed.

“The information he provided to the ag committee didn’t include our current actions, but rather his bias,” Fortunato charged. “The ag committee needs to step back from this.”

Commissioners are set to discuss their next step during their regular Tuesday meeting in Cody.

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