Western states debate retaking control of federal lands

It’s going to sound as if this story is some sort of reflexive reaction to the showdown at the Bundy ranch, but it’s apparently been in the works for a while. A number of officials from nine different states got together to discuss ways to retake control of poorly managed federal lands. One can only imagine the kind of firestorm this is going to kick off in DC if it moves forward.

Officials from nine Western states met in Salt Lake City on Friday to discuss taking control of federal lands within their borders on the heels of a standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management.

The lawmakers and county commissioners discussed ways to wresting oil-, timber- and mineral-rich lands away from the feds. Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart said it was in the works before this month’s standoff…

“What’s happened in Nevada is really just a symptom of a much larger problem,” Lockhart said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Legislative Summit on the Transfer of Public Lands, as it was called, was organized by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory and Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, addressed the group over lunch, the Tribune reported.

“It’s simply time,” Ivory told reporters. “The urgency is now.”

Fielder said federal land management is hamstrung by bad policies, politicized science and severe federal budget cuts.

This has some interesting possibilities, though it’s unclear what the prospects for success are were it to come down to a court battle at the federal level. It would be useful to highlight precisely how much “federal land” there is in the United States, and how much of it is actually being put to productive use. Further, how much land should the federal government legitimately control?

A really strict interpretation of just how much land that would be could be found in Article I, Section 8.

To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings;

The origin of national park lands is a bit more hazy, but dates back to the life and activism of John Muir. But at the time, the idea of establishing national parks was frequently referred to as a radical one, and it took a lot of salesmanship to bring it to pass. There is also a long standing debate over the number of abandoned military bases scattered around the country which represent eyesores and lost tax revenue. When the federal government needs land for an active base in support of our military, then sure… no problem. But what about when they shut one down? Shouldn’t that land immediately revert back to the control of the state?

It seems, however, that even if we accept all of the above examples, there is still an argument to be made that public lands which are not being dutifully maintained to serve some valid purpose of the public would be better classified as state lands. There used to be a lot of state land, even where I grew up in rural New York. The state maintained control of such lands and could preserve it or sell it to residents as they saw fit. The same could doubtless apply to things like grazing rights, tourism and what have you.

There may be something to this idea. But we’ll have to wait and see what, if anything, they come up with and how Washington responds. I doubt it would be resolved in my lifetime, however.

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