Movement to Transfer Federal Lands to States gains Presidential Candidate Carson’s Support

Published January 25, 2016

In an interview with the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson says the federal government should transfer most federal lands to the states.

“The fact that the government owns 2.4 billion acres of land is ridiculous,” Carson said in interview, conducted in December. “What do they need with all that land? I would advocate returning land to the states. It’s not like they’re irresponsible people who don’t care what happens, you know. I just don’t see any benefit from the government owning this much land.”

The U.S. government owns approximately 640 million acres of land, most concentrated in 11 contiguous Western states in which the federal government owns nearly 50 percent of the land. Many public officials in the West argue economic growth in their states is stunted because federal ownership limits state and private land ownership and sharply restricts the development of natural resources, such as timber, oil, gas, and rare-Earth and hard rock minerals.

Utah Takes the Lead

Carson’s position lends support to moves in some Western states, which have demanded federal public lands be transferred to them. In Utah, where the federal government owns approximately 65 percent of the land, the state government enacted the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act (UTPLA) in 2012, demanding the return of most of the federal land within Utah’s borders to its control by 2014.

Proponents of land transfer say the states have a constitutional right to the federal land within their borders. Utah officials point to language in the enabling act establishing Utah as a state as proof the federal government is supposed to transfer most lands within the state to either private or state ownership.

Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordon), sponsor of UTPLA, has led the charge against unnecessary federal land ownership.

“The public land question started during the Revolutionary War,” said Ivory. “States agreed to put their Western lands in trust, but only to create new and equal states and to pay the national debts from the war.”

“Having no authority to hold onto the public lands indefinitely, the federal government kept this trust obligation with all states east of the Rockies and transferred title to their lands,” Ivory said. “The federal government still controls more than 50 percent of all lands west of the Rockies, according to preeminent constitutional scholar Ronald Rotunda. By failing to honor the same statehood promises to Western states, the federal government is treating them like orphans and second-class citizens.”

ALEC Supports States

Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Washington State, and Wyoming have all introduced bills laying the groundwork for land transfers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators, has supported these efforts, introducing eight model resolutions and bills supporting land transfers.

“The states have a strong interest in preserving select federal lands within their borders and the expertise to do so in ways that will benefit the environment and the economy,” said Karla Jones, director of the International Relations and Federalism Task Force at ALEC.

“The federal government has proven itself not up to the task, so it’s time to transfer select public lands in the West from federal to state control,” Jones said. “Transferring management of select Western lands from federal to state control is in the interest of the nation and the states.”

Tiffany Taylor ([email protected]) writes from Chicago, Illinois.