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.”

Top image by Bob Wick from the Bureau of Land Management

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  • Art

    The best government is the one closest to home. Localities should not be dictated to by an over-reaching federal government. If a local community wishes to benefit from the natural resources it owns that is their business. Furthermore, except in the extreme example of strip mining most mineral extraction operations are largely unobtrusive to the flora and fauna and in fact many times open new areas for recreational opportunities. If on the other hand a community wishes to keep an area pristine and untouched that too is the local communities business.

    • Jim Finley

      This is more about the lobbyists paying off the state legislators to sell the land and its resources out from under the feet of local communities. I live in NM and that’s a problem here – the governor and some of the pols in Santa Fe are pushing hard to sell some of the most beautiful natural preserves in the state, which are currently open to the public, to the gas well industry so they can start fracking there. The wishes of the local communities are being ignored. If you follow the money, the mining, logging, and drilling companies are behind the “local control” groups nearly every time. The state – not the local communities – gets the proceeds of the land sales, then the money from the mining/drilling/logging doesn’t go to those local communities, it goes to distant corporations and their executives and stockholders.

  • NorthernMichiganBoy

    States would ruin the Federal Land. Michigan is a big example. I live here and every time I hear Pure Michigan it annoys me. Our state Gov’t has little money(so they say, right) and cannot take care of public land now. ORV’s run rampant on public land, destroying it. Our rivers and streams are over used. Our state is always abusing public land, they create policies that overburden the land. Anything goes on state public land in Michigan. The best land I have used whether hunting, fishing or hiking was always Federal Land. Even out west, the Federal Land is beautiful. Let’s keep it that way.

    • ConcernedCitizen

      I agree with your assessment….to an extent. I live in MI as well, and I use the ORV trail system (more for scouting than entertainment), am an avid waterfowl and turkey hunter in the state, am a member of the Michigan CWAC board, and work closely with MIDNR biologists and Conservation Officers. Michigan is one of the few places where the state seemingly cares about how our citizens use the land and want to invest more money into preserving that public usage. I know we sell land off in order to log and drill, but we also buy land in order to expand the forest, coastline, and marsh habitat. We may not be “Pure Michigan”, but our agencies are certainly “Pro Michigan”.

  • tom

    This poisonous idea keeps raising its ugly head. When will we learn that the politicians who back it are always the usual bunch of sold-out and corrupt vermin that seem to inhabit ALL state governments and can NEVER be trusted. They are all in the pockets of special interests and anyone who thinks otherwise has their head up their rear. While the feds may not be perfect, turning over OUR lands to any state would be the beginning of the end. Don’t let it happen!

  • Danders

    First of all, this is much ado about nothing. Anybody really think the federal government is going to give up it’s control of these lands? Fat chance. Secondly, even if they were to allow the states to manage these properties, why would that be so bad? State governments are responsible to their citizens. Wouldn’t you rather have that control closer to home? When it comes to fish and game management, I’m reasonably sure my state (Oregon) would do better than the feds. So, I think it would be a vast improvement over the current situation if these lands ended up in the hands of state governments. Just don’t hold your breath for that.

    • Only18Powers

      #DoYouWorry that #CongressIsPlanningToSell #NationalParks ?#DontWorry #congressHasNoPlan to #Payoff its $19Trillion #CongressionalDebtAbuse

    • R Reynolds

      Oregon had 3.4 million acres granted to them and now only have 776,000 left.

    • ConcernedCitizen

      Have you even read up on this topic? Did you even read this article? The Federal Government is the one PUSHING to give up control of these lands. And why wouldn’t they? Less tax payer money spent on silly pieces of land means more money spent on healthcare and Iranian dealings. Not to mention the huge income the Feds would get as a result of the states getting this land back. Then the states are free to close it off, parcel it out, and sell it off to the highest bidders. Everyone in government and business wins; sportsmen lose. If you think this won’t happen, just ask your DFW how much state land they have sold to private owners/businesses in the last 50 years.

  • Goldrimmer

    If the State is controlled by Sanctuary Cities, Libs, and wetbacks, kiss your hunting and fishing good bye.

  • just a hall call

    FYI, in MI, my home state, Act 240 of 2012 Land Cap was passed by GOP house & senate & republican governor ( Snyder ).
    The adopted law mandates any newly “aquired” land beyond our present day 6.24 million acres of STATE LAND + or – must be sold within 6 months after said “acquisition”.
    The State of MI. has 2.7 million acres of National Forest in our boundary’s. Manistee, Hiawatha, Huron and Ottawa all heavily timbered with easy access by western standards. This is a law on a shelf most likely written with ALEC,s direction. If the GOP platform of transfer is implemented the GOP will within this law frame work sell our forest, and the resources of gas, oil & minerals as well.
    Sadly, GOP serve’s their overlord’s while the working citizen is unaware of this SCHEME and time frame!
    America is being played by oil & resource brokers and the voter’s are by and large unaware!
    D Dailey