Today in New West news: public lands at heart of constitutional debate in Wyoming, Utah Supreme Court to hear refinery case, and Aurora biotech firm raises $6M.
Over in Wyoming, according to the Wyoming Business Report, the Legislature is currently considering a bill to modify the state Constitution regarding public lands. Specifically, the bill would lay the groundwork for potential transfers of federal, public lands to state control—a measure that has many worried. From the WBR:
Muley Fanatic Foundation President Josh Coursey said he welcomes the dialogue between legislators and residents but thinks the proposed change would be detrimental to Wyomingites.
“We support the public initiative process. What we don’t support is a full-blown transfer of public lands to the state,” he said.
Coursey said if the state owns the lands, it would face the problem of having the funds to support it.
“We don’t have the tax base to be able to afford the management of these lands. It would be inevitable that they would be sold,” he said. “Items such as fire prevention, habitat restoration, invasive species control and road maintenance costs millions of dollars each year.”
He said if the lands are transferred to the state, he believes many areas will be auctioned off.
“Turning over this land to the state with the potential risk that it could be something put on the chopping block down the road is unhealthy,” he said.
Coursey said the long-term effects could be dangerous.
“This transfer could easily shut sportsmen out of hunting and outdoor recreational grounds that families have used for generations,” he said.
Indeed, according to the Casper Star Tribune, over 100 Wyomingites attended a meeting at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne Wednesday afternoon, all unified in their fear that a transfer to state control could lead to a “land grab” by the highest bidder:
Although the meeting was about the language of the amendment and not whether the amendment would proceed to the full Legislature, that didn’t stop dozens of people from telling the committee they were against the amendment.
In fact, not one person who spoke Wednesday was in favor of the measure.
“I agree with so many people that this is just a terrible proposal,” said Dewey Gallegos, who co-owns the Pedal House, a bike shop in Laramie.
Groups representing a variety of interests, from conservation groups to sportsmen to the National Outdoor Leadership School, all were opposed to the amendment.
Individual citizens also spoke against the measure.
The crowd cheered at several points, including when Casey Quinn, representing the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said his organization is flat-out opposed to the amendment.
“We don’t support any of the language because we don’t support the amendment,” he said.
Several members of the public encouraged the committee to change the amendment’s language to where it would require the state to refuse or reject a federal land transfer.
Subcommittee members, which included Dayton, Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, and Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, ended up making changes to the amendment, including:
• A prohibition on the sale of acquired federal public lands except for public health or welfare purposes or to public entities;
• Language that transferred lands will be maintained for “public access”;
• Language that excludes national parks, national monuments and wilderness areas from the amendment;
• A definition of “sustained yield”;
• A requirement that land exchanges be of similar value only and not of size; and
• A requirement that land exchanges take place within the same county.
Many of those changes originated through public comment.
The Tribune reports that, when the measure came up at the Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee in Riverton this November, the majority of speakers were against it—although it passed committee anyhow.
Governor Matt Mead has gone on record saying the state does not have any legal or financial grounds for handling federal land.
The debate in Wyoming, it should be noted, parallels the ongoing debate of federal land down in Utah, where a Legislature-sponsored lawsuit seeks to turn control of public lands over to the state. The lawsuit (a legal longshot even in the most favorable conditions) would be marred by similar problems re: the costs of upkeep and management. Indeed, even if Utah gets the land it seeks, a pair of University of Utah legal scholars have argued the transfer wouldn’t include mineral rights, which would undercut their value and likely remove (one of) the only reason(s) for Utah to obtain control of the lands.
Keeping with Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the state’s Supreme Court is poised to hear a suit regarding the expansion of a Salt Lake-area oil refinery, which has some judges, per the Tribune, feeling déjà vu:
The challenge, brought by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Friends of Great Salt Lake, argues that the director of the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) should not have permitted the expansion of HollyFrontier Corp’s refinery in Woods Cross.
Much of the Wasatch Front is considered a nonattainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency for having spikes of fine particulate pollution that exceed federal health standards. Joro Walker, an attorney representing Utah Physicians, argued that the refinery’s operations contribute to the area’s often-poor air quality, and the DAQ should have been more strict about the emissions increases it allowed.
For example, she said, the DAQ chose to use a new methodology of estimating emissions increases that was unproven while reviewing the refinery’s planned expansion. That methodology, she said, could have understated the potential for emissions increases. The DAQ also chose not to consider the contributions of unregulated flares at the refinery, she said.
But the bulk of Wednesday’s discussion focused on procedural questions. The state justices repeatedly questioned how the case differed from a previous case in which Utah Physicians challenged the state’s approval of an expansion at Tesoro’s Salt Lake-area refinery. The Utah Supreme Court dismissed that appeal on the grounds that it did not identify specific deficiencies in the final order from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that upheld the expansion’s approval.
Christian Stephens, an assistant attorney general arguing on behalf of the DEQ, asked the justices to dismiss this new challenge as they had the previous Tesoro case.
“We had an almost identical case last year, and the way [Utah Physicians] approached it was the same, and the court decided that was insufficient,” he said. “So we saw that our position was the same here, that they had improperly brought the case to the court, and that the decision should be the same.”
Finally, over in Colorado, according to the Denver Business Journal, Aurora-based Ocugen Inc., which researches cures for eye diseases, has raised $6 million in Series A funding:
The biotech is advancing research into drugs to treat retinitis pigmentosa (OCU100), macular degeneration (OCU200) and ocular graft versus host disease (OCU300).
“With this funding, we will continue our efforts to aggressively advance the OCU300 program toward an IND (investigational new drug) submission within a year, bringing this much needed therapy closer to the patients who need it,” said Musunuri, who’s also the biotech’s CEO and chairman, in a statement.