States Challenge Federal Control of Western Lands

Published January 26, 2015

The large swaths of federal lands in western states are at the center of a debate over the future of tens of millions of acres between the eastern rim of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Under the “Transfer of Public Lands Act,” signed into law in 2012 by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), the federal government had until Dec. 31, 2014 to relinquish control of more than half of the 54.3 million acres Washington controls in the Beehive State. The deadline came and went, without any federal land being conveyed to Utah. Arguably symbolic, the law was a sign of mounting discontent in Western states over Washington’s dominance.

State Would Benefit

In addition to ordering Washington to transfer the title to 31.2 million acres of federal land to Utah, the 2012 statute commissioned the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, Utah State University, and Weber State University to conduct an economic analysis of the proposed land transfer. The analysis, released Dec. 1, concluded if the land transfer were completed by 2017, Utah would incur an additional $280 million in costs to manage the newly gained lands, but the costs would be more than offset by an expected $331.7 million in royalties from the development of natural resources, primarily oil and natural gas.

In a statement Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), incoming chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, with jurisdiction over federal lands, said, “The findings of this report confirm that the state is more than capable of taking on the management of these lands.”

Rumblings in Montana

Although Utah has been the most aggressive in challenging federal ownership of land within its borders, rumblings of discontent are also being heard in Montana. The Helena Independent Record (12/26) reported State Rep. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) is spearheading efforts to have federal lands transferred to Montana. The Record’s article quotes Fielder saying, “Montanans can do a better job than the federal government managing our lands.”

Fielder chaired a working group on federal lands for the Environmental Quality Council, a committee of the state legislature. The working group’s draft report to the legislature in 2014 recommended transferring federal lands to the state, but—in a compromise worked out with Democrats—only after all other means had been exhausted.

The transfer of federal lands to western states, whether to be managed by the states or to be sold off to the highest bidder, is fiercely opposed by environmental lobbyists, including the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). In early December SUWA began running radio and TV ads opposing what they termed a “land grab” by western states. In one TV ad showing people fishing and riding horseback, a voice said, “Seizing public lands: A bad idea we can’t afford” (

Disparity of Federal Ownership

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) inventory of federal land by state sheds light on the peculiar situation in the rural West. According to the CRS, the percentage of land owned by the federal government in western states is as follows: Alaska: 61.8 percent; Arizona: 42.3 percent; California: 47.7 percent; Colorado: 36.2 percent; Idaho: 61.7 percent; Montana: 28.9 percent; New Mexico: 34.7 percent; Oregon: 53.0 percent; Utah: 66.5 percent; Washington: 28.5 percent; Wyoming: 48.2 percent.

By comparison, the figure in Alabama is 2.7 percent, Connecticut 0.3 percent, Illinois 1.1 percent, Iowa 0.3 percent, Nebraska 1.1 percent, Oklahoma 1.6 percent, Pennsylvania 2.1 percent, and Texas 1.8 percent.

Keep or Sell?

Frustration over the amount of federal lands in Western states unites proponents of conveying those lands to the states. But what to do with those lands if they are transferred to the states is another matter. Should the lands be administered by state governments in Salt Lake City, Helena, or Boise? Or should the lands be sold off to the highest bidder, putting them in private hands as is the norm in most of the rest of the country?

In the “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2013,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R- UT) proposed selling some lands in the West. The bill directs the U.S. Department of the Interior to sell nearly 3.3 million acres (an area roughly the size of Connecticut) of federal land Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identified in ten western states as suitable for sale. The amount of land to be sold amounts to just over 1 percent of all BLM lands and less than one-half of 1 percent of all federal lands.

‘End the Bondage’

Chaffetz’s bill was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee but received no further action and faced a certain veto by President Obama.

“As long as the heavy hand of the federal government holds sway over the rural West, Western states will remain little more than colonies of the distant government in Washington,” said Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which studies energy and natural resource issues. “Widespread private ownership of rural land has worked very well elsewhere in the United States, where our farms, ranches, orchards, and tree farms are the envy of the world. Similarly, most of nation’s fracking-driven energy boom is taking place on private land. It’s time to end the bondage of the rural West.”