Should a piece of state-owned land in Clark be sold to a private buyer and put back on the tax rolls? Made available for cattle grazing and farming? Remain exclusively dedicated to public recreation forever?
None of those questions about the 657-acre Beartooth Ranch was definitively answered at last week’s Park County Commission meeting.
But for the time being, county commissioners say they do not want state or federal lawmakers to change the management of the public property. A majority of the commissioners indicated that they want a committee of local residents to continue brainstorming ways to improve the public area.
“I just encourage you to … give us more time and give the public more time to have a piece of property that really truly has a lot of potential to be something out of the ordinary for the state or the country,” Kristie Hoffert, a member of the county’s Beartooth Ranch Advisory Committee, had said.
A group of state lawmakers had suggested forming a new “working group” that would be put together by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso. However, commissioners effectively voted 4-1 to stick with their advisory committee, asking state lawmakers to stay out of the dispute for now.
“We’ve got it handled,” said Commissioner Jake Fulkerson.
The commission’s decision to back their committee drew applause among the dozens of people who crammed into the meeting room for a sometimes-heated discussion over the Beartooth Ranch’s future.
The federal government seized the property from a cocaine smuggler in the 1990s, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as the “Drug Ranch.” The feds later gave the land to the State of Wyoming, but on the condition that it “be used solely as a public area reserved for recreational or historic purposes or for the preservation of natural conditions.”
The federal government’s memorandum of understanding (MOU) technically allows crops to be grown and cattle to be grazed on parts of the property, but the Department of Justice says the land can’t actually be leased out to a private citizen or business.
Clark rancher and commissioner-elect Lloyd Thiel first brought the property to the commission’s attention last year, believing that the restrictions on the property had led to the ranch falling into disrepair and becoming an eyesore. Thiel believes the county and state should be taking steps to put the land back into agricultural production and to stop it from being a “money pit” for taxpayers.
Commissioners initially said they wanted all the restrictions removed and the property given to the county, raising the possibility that the land could be sold off to a private buyer.
That idea triggered a substantial backlash from anglers, environmentalists and others who enjoy the public property and the access it provides to miles of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.
After getting an earful, commissioners instead formed the Beartooth Ranch Advisory Committee in May to explore options.
Thiel involves lawmakers
Over the summer, the committee decided to work toward developing the “world class location” into a destination for fishing, hunting, boating, hiking, wildlife viewing and picnicking. Over Thiel’s objections, the panel dropped the idea of removing the restrictions on the property.
Thiel complained to commissioners about the change in approach in August, then took his concerns to the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee in September.
The lawmakers jumped into the debate, drafting a letter that would ask Wyoming’s Congressional delegation to create a new “working group” to develop a plan for the Beartooth Ranch. However, the ag committee decided it would only send the letter if Park County commissioners were on board with the change in approach.
With last week’s 4-1 vote, commissioners decided they would rather stay the course.
Among other concerns, they expressed unease about having the federal government take over the discussions about the local property.
“Inviting the feds into this and turning that rock over, I think there would be unintended consequences at some point, because we’ve seen that too many times,” said Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf, adding, “I think there’s a possibility that somebody in Washington, D.C., may say, ‘We want the property and we’ll take it.’ Period.”
Commissioner Tim French has generally seen things the same way, and he cast the lone dissenting vote last week. French indicated that he supported the ag committee’s suggestion to convene a working group that would determine whether grazing and agricultural leases or other potential uses should be allowed.
“I don’t see the harm in getting the feds to get their thumb off of Wyoming’s management of that property,” he said. “Why not get the feds out of it [and have] the State of Wyoming, the [advisory] committee, everybody work on that thing?”
Commissioner Joe Tilden indicated that he, too, is open to having the land returned to some agricultural production.
But Tilden said his fear is that lifting the restrictions in the MOU could lead to the property being sold, “and I would hate to see the State of Wyoming sell it at this point of time,” he said. “I really would.”
There’s a permanent easement that protects public access along the river, but the fear of other public access being lost in a sale has driven much of the debate over the past year.
Public comments offered
Hoffert, the advisory committee member, cited the country’s dwindling amount of open spaces at last week’s meeting.
“This is a piece of property that needs to stay under the MOU in order for us all to enjoy it,” said Clark resident Mike Hernandez.
The Cody-based Wyoming Outdoorsmen submitted a letter asking commissioners to ensure “there be continued public access for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation on this property.”
Most of those who spoke expressed similar thoughts, though Thiel presented a petition with signatures of people who supported easing restrictions on the ranch.
Meanwhile, some members of the advisory committee and others criticized Thiel for taking his case to state lawmakers.
At last week’s meeting, the chairman of the advisory committee, Len Fortunato of Cody, accused Thiel of having “acted in duplicity.”
“He circumvented the agenda of the committee to pursue his own agenda,” Fortunato said.
In an interview, Thiel said he believed state lands officials were sending conflicting messages about their thoughts on the federal restrictions and wanted to question them at the ag committee’s Sept. 27 meeting in Powell.
Thiel said it was only after not getting answers from state lands officials that he decided to ask the ag committee to help him remove the federal restrictions on the property.
“I didn’t feel like I was going behind anybody’s back,” he said. “I was trying to gather enough information, get some input so that we could have more broader ideas of [how the state could manage the property].”
Fortunato faulted Thiel for not mentioning the advisory committee’s work in his comments to lawmakers and said it was “untrue” for Thiel to say that the ranch is in disrepair; Fortunato noted that several of the old ranch buildings were cleaned up and that the advisory committee is working on the issue.
“How can you say that ranch is not in disrepair?” French pressed, starting a sharp back and forth that culminated with French dismissing Fortunato’s comments as “a joke.”
French, a Heart Mountain farmer, has been particularly critical of the mounds of dirt that have piled up on the former ranch.
A former working ranch
Powell resident Tom Close, whose family owned the Beartooth Ranch from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, bemoaned how the ranch has fallen into disrepair.
While his family owned the property, they had hay fields and hundreds of cows, sheep, hogs, horses, turkeys, geese, pheasants and ducks — plus many deer and antelope residing on the property.
Now, “it’s nothing but weeds and dirt. … The fishing’s not what it used to be, the hunting is no longer existent,” Tom Close said, adding, “Agriculture and wildlife and water and a lot of work could bring this place to something respectable, which it isn’t right now.”
His brother, Roy Close of Billings, shared similarly warm memories of the ranch in an email to commissioners. However, Roy Close expressed doubts that it will be possible to repair the irrigation ditches and fences and remove all the weeds and otherwise restore the ranch.
“The chances of finding the right individual or individuals that have the funds and desire to bring this property back to life in spite of the cost or time that must be committed are slim indeed,” he wrote.
While commissioners appeared to back the advisory committee’s approach of working within the ranch’s restrictions for now, they left the door open to changing tactics in the future.
Commissioner Lee Livingston said it could be possible to both improve public access and bring back agricultural use, saying that would help wildlife.
“Is it feasible to turn part of that back into ag land and keep it under public control? That’s what I’m looking for,” Livingston said.
Commissioner Grosskopf suggested the board should revisit the subject in a year or so.
If the committee is unable to make progress in that time, he said, “maybe it’s time to ask again, what else can we do?”
By then, Thiel will have moved from the audience to a commissioner’s chair, as he’ll be sworn in as a commissioner in January.
While he doesn’t totally agree with the current board’s decision, “I respect their decision and will move forward and see how things go,” Thiel said. “I truly hope the committee and everything works out.”
Thiel added that he’s been satisfied with how many more people are now paying attention to the property.
“Two years ago, very few people knew what the drug ranch was; we’ve got a lot of people that know what it is now,” Livingston told the crowd last week. “And if anything, I think that’s a good thing.”