Western States Fighting for Control of Federal Lands

Published August 17, 2015

In 2015, 36 bills have been introduced in 11 western states aimed at wresting control of federal public lands within their borders from the federal government and turning management over to state legislatures or state environmental agencies.

A new report “Going to Extremes: The Anti-Government Extremism Behind the Growing Movement to Seize America’s Public Lands,” argues states are not prepared to administer public lands within their boundaries. The report is from the liberal Center for Western Priorities, a group which argues royalties for fossil fuel production on public lands should be sharply increased but is silent concerning expedited, below cost, wind and solar development. 

Old Battle over States’ Abilities

The Center’s report is the latest volley in an often bitter old battle across the West in which many states have argued they can do a better job taking care of vast swaths of public land than bureaucrats in far-off Washington, D.C. The battle dates back to at least the “Wise Use Movement” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it garnered its first widespread attention during the Reagan administration. 

Analysts and Western state legislators, disagree Western public lands are managed better by the federal government than they would be by the states.  “States, like private landowners, are far better stewards of nature’s bounty than the federal government,” said Bonner Cohen, senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. “State forests and state parks are typically managed by people with extensive knowledge of local conditions.  This cannot be said of the bureaucrats in Washington overseeing far-flung national parks.”

Cohen, also points to the fiscal limitations of federal public land management and the possible benefits of devolving federal lands to the states.  “With a maintenance backlog totaling $11.49 billion, the National Park Service has shown itself to be incapable of managing its vast domain,” said Cohen. “Devolving money-losing national parks and national forests to the states will benefit wildlife and taxpayers.”  

Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R), President of the American Land’s council and an often outspoken critic of federal public lands management, agrees with Cohen’s assessment of the beneficial effect on public lands of local control.  “People who are closer to any natural resource make better decisions than those thousands of miles away,” said Ivory. 

Reports Calls Westerners Extremists

The report further argues the state public land bills lack widespread public support and are only being pushed by a relatively small handful of state lawmakers with anti-government ideologies. 

Nevada state Rep. Michele Fiore (R) disputing this claim in an August 11, Los Angeles Times article. Fiore, who sponsored a bill for Nevada to take control of the 85 percent of the state presently controlled by the federal government was quoted saying “Any poll can be skewed to the agenda of what the pollsters want them to prove. That most Americans think that the federal government should own our land is simply not correct.” 

The claim there is only limited support for state control of public lands in the West is belied by the fact so many bills have been introduced by lawmakers in Western states with both Democratic and Republican governors and in states with both Democrat and Republican controlled legislatures. Of three dozen bills proposed, six measures passed in states including Nevada, Utah and Montana mandating studies of state-led land management. 

State Rep. Ivory labeled claims made in the report that those advocating state control of public lands are “extremists” as “patently ridiculous.”

“It’s actually laughable,” Ivory said. “We have worked through the legislative and education processes and will soon enter the legal process with the federal government on this issue. If that’s extremism, we simply do not have the structures of government engineered for by the founding fathers.” 

Ron Arnold, executive vice-president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, a long-time veteran of the Western public land wars argues, “The struggle by a number of Western states to take control over certain federal lands within their borders is long overdue,” said Arnold. 

“Federal forest and range ecosystems have been degraded by mismanagement that has polluted watersheds and let wildfires run rampant into catastrophes, while adjacent state lands suffering the same drought and lightning strikes survive unscathed because of good management,” Arnold said. “Federal control denies states access to their own mineral resources, strips them of revenue and shreds their autonomy. Western states are just as capable of managing the lands within their boundaries as the states east of Colorado, which are not burdened with outdated bureaucracies and regional prejudices. The West is a giant in chains and Washington knows it – and fears it” 

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.