Transferring Federal Lands to the States – The Dumbest Idea Ever?


On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable idea, and one borne of commonsense fiscal policy. Giving federal land—national forest, refuges and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acreage—back to the states would allow those states to better manage the land within their borders. And it would relieve the federal government of the massive price tag that comes with overseeing hundreds of millions of acres of property.

In reality, though, it’s a backdoor attempt at allowing more resource extraction from our public lands. The largest and most influential group pushing the idea is the American Lands Council, funded largely by corporations with a direct interest in the oil, gas and minerals that lie within that land. A growing number of legislators at various levels are also jumping on board.

Ridiculous, you say? Consider this: In 2012, Republican Governor Gary Herbert from Utah signed the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which required the federal government to transfer public land to Utah. Fortunately, the federal government ignored the state’s law. During the recent presidential primaries, Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas vowed to return federal land within Arizona “back to its rightful owners.”

“We already own it,” says Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) Executive Director Land Tawney. “I’m not sure why they don’t grasp that concept. Public land belongs to the public.”

More recently, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska added an amendment to the Senate’s budget resolution that would support state efforts to wrest control of federal land. It passed 51 to 49, but would require the passage of an additional bill to actually happen. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution embracing the transfer of public land during the 2016 convention.

“It’s just another example of how serious some of these legislators are. If they are willing to introduce bills or push for this in other ways, we need to take this idea very seriously,” added Tawney.

These sage grouse came from BLM land in Montana. From left to right: the author, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Executive Director Land Tawney, and Montana Wildlife Federation Conservation Director Nick Gevock.
These sage grouse came from BLM land in Montana. From left to right: the author, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Executive Director Land Tawney, and Montana Wildlife Federation Conservation Director Nick Gevock.

The most recent effort is in many ways similar to the Sagebrush Rebellion that took place in the 1970s and ’80s. That movement grew out of increased federal oversight and regulations that stymied such things as timber and mineral extraction from federal lands. Pushed in part by the budding environmental movement, local, state and federal lawmakers demanded the transfer of federal land back to the states.

That movement may have faded, but the same motivation is giving life to the most recent efforts. Tawney says western states in particular want not only a larger slice of oil, gas and mineral revenue, they want the freedom to increase mineral extraction. They also want more control over logging and other management activities.


Weighing All the Costs

Even with the revenue from increased mining, drilling and cutting, there’s little reason to believe states could afford all the costs associated with management and maintenance. A study that examined the impact of transferring federal land to the state found it would cost Utah taxpayers $280 million per year. It would cost Montana a half-billion dollars annually.

“If you think the federal government is having a tough time funding all the demands on our public lands, how do you think the states will manage?” said Tawney. “They’ll either have to raise taxes, which no politician would want to do, they’ll have to increase mining, oil, gas and timber extraction, or they’ll have to sell it.”

No matter what choice they take, sportsmen would come out losers. One of the biggest threats to such iconic western species as mule deer, sage grouse and pronghorn is the increased loss of suitable habitat. Various studies have shown that human encroachment has a detrimental effect on all three species. Increased drilling, for example, would lead to new roads, additional rigs and an increase in human activity.

The biggest threat, however, isn’t necessarily new roads, more gas wells and fewer trees: It’s the loss of the land itself. Although lawmakers and industry-backed groups pushing the transfer idea insist selling land to private parties is not in the long-term plan, there’s no guarantee they won’t.

“Once they realize just how expensive it actually is, they might start selling it off to alleviate the costs,” said Tawney.

He points to the 91,000-acre Elliott State Forest in western Oregon. The state has put the entire forest up for sale, and it has already attracted interested buyers. The sale comes on the heels of a number of lawsuits related to an endangered bird (the marbled murrelet) and logging on the forest. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is putting 10,000 acres of state-owned land that is open to hunting and fishing up for sale.

The author tagged this trophy the elk on BLM land in Colorado.
The author tagged this trophy the elk on BLM land in Colorado.

Colorado’s state trust land, owned by the residents of Colorado, includes about 3 million acres. The land was given to the state by the federal government as a way to generate long-term funding for schools. Less than a quarter is open to hunting and fishing, and sportsmen are required to buy a permit to set foot on that land. The rest is leased to ranching, mining and drilling interests. Some states have a mandate that requires maximizing revenue from state trust land, which means selling the mineral or grazing rights to the highest bidder. One Idaho law maker actually proposed leasing state land to outfitters for their exclusive use.

“Those are good examples of what might happen to all the federal land if it is turned over to the states,” warned Tawney.

Tawney admits the federal government doesn’t always manage its land wisely. Maintenance on facilities and infrastructure is lagging, and decisions on mining, drilling and logging don’t always consider the best interests of fish and wildlife, or those who utilize them. However, he insists federal land managers do a good job with the various demands pulling on them.

“It’s not perfect, but I don’t want to find out what might happen if the states take over federal land because once that occurs, it’s not going to change,” he said.

The good news is that legislators are getting pummeled over the federal land transfer idea. Much of that blowback is coming from sportsmen and groups such as BHA and a number of other conservation organizations. Other outdoor recreation groups are also speaking out. Even with the outcry, it isn’t going away, though, says Tawney.

“This comes up about every 10 or 15 years, but the more sportsmen push back, the more empowered these land transfer groups and politicians seem to become,” he said. “We really need to keep hammering our legislators on this and let them know that we won’t stand for it.”

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