House Bills Tackle Federal Control of Western Lands

Published April 12, 2016

Mounting tensions in the rural West, as evidenced by the 2014 armed standoff at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada and the 41-day standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in Oregon earlier in 2016,[HSB1]  have triggered the introduction of two bills in the U.S. House of Representative aimed at substantially reducing Washington, DC’s control over millions of acres of land in the region.

In September 2015, long-serving Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) introduced the State National Forest Management Act of 2015, which would allow each state to acquire two million acres of national forest land from the federal government. Young’s bill would require the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to convey land to any Western state when that state’s legislature passes a bill requesting the land.

Young says USFS mismanages large swaths of the Western lands it owns.

The federal government owns and controls 62 percent of the land in Idaho, 65 percent in Utah, and 85 percent in Nevada.

National Forests ‘Unhealthy’

An April 2015 Congressional Research Service report shows USFS had a maintenance backlog of $5.1 billion, and USFS acknowledges 60 percent of its national forest land is “unhealthy” and faces significant fire-hazard risks. USFS says more than 90 million acres face a “high risk” for catastrophic fires.

“The worst-managed lands in the United States by the federal government are the Forest Service lands,” Young said. “It’s because they become park rangers instead of silviculturists. They don’t understand the harvesting. They don’t understand the impact on communities.”

A bill introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, would establish pilot projects that would allow state and local officials to manage up to 2 percent of the 193 million acres of USFS land located in the West.

“Let’s give control to the people who are closest to the land and know it best,” Labrador said in a congressional hearing in February.

Under Labrador’s legislation, Western governors would appoint advisory committees to decide how to use the land after a state takeover.

“The federal government is out of touch with the people and communities most impacted by its vast land holdings,” said James Taylor, senior fellow with The Heartland Institute publisher of Environment & Climate News. “Public lands would be better managed by environmental officials in the individual states who are closer to the land, more knowledgeable about the particular issues relating to each swath of public land, and closer to the people impacted by government land management decisions.

“The fact bills such as those offered by Young and Labrador are offered each congressional session is evidence the long-simmering issue of federal control over land in the West is not going away,” said Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for Free Enterprise. “Unfortunately, even if both bills pass the House, they have little chance of passing the Senate, where they would face a near-certain filibuster by the Democrats.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.


Carol Hardy Vincent, “Deferred Maintenance of Federal Land Management Agencies: FY2005–FY2014 Estimates,” Congressional Research Service, April 21, 2015:


 [HSB1]Some view it negative, others positive, though not the conclusion, but I just simply see it as providing evidence of the tensions and context for the bills.