Washington Times, DENVER — Behind the hoopla surrounding Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management is a growing resentment over the federal government’s status as the largest landowner in the West.
“This is so much bigger than one rancher in Nevada,” Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, who heads the American Lands Council, said in an April 23 online debate sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune.
How much land does the federal government own? A 2012 Congressional Research Survey said the federal government owns about 640 million acres, or 28 percent of the nation’s land mass. Roughly 90 percent of that property is in the West.
Put another way, one out of every two acres in the West is federally owned. In Nevada, the figure is 81.1 percent; in Alaska, 61.8 percent; in Utah, 66.5 percent; in Oregon, 53 percent. In Connecticut and Iowa, the federal government owns 0.3 percent of the land.
“The federal estate is larger than France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom combined,” said Robert Gordon, a senior adviser for the Heritage Foundation. “It is too big and was never intended to be preserved as one big park, but the left is strangling use of it and with it, rural America.”
Last month, Mr. Ivory and Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder hosted more than 50 legislators from nine states at a Legislative Summit on the Transfer of Public Lands in Salt Lake City.
“It’s time the states in the West come of age,” Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke said in The Salt Lake Tribune. “We’re every bit as capable of managing the lands in our boundaries as the states east of Colorado.”
At the Salt Lake Tribune debate, former BLM Director Patrick Shea said he opposed the movement to put states in charge of federal land within their borders.
“I don’t think states are capable of the complexity of managing these lands, and I think people like Rep. Ivory get off on these rhetorical pitches that don’t have a historical basis and they certainly don’t have a scientific basis,” Mr. Shea said.
State officials argue that the federal agency is herding rural Westerners off the land by tightening restrictions, many of them driven by the Endangered Species Act, as well as lax management.
At last year’s Western Governors’ Association meeting, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, linked wildfires to federal land management of the forests. “There’s a real high degree of frustration when it comes to management of our federal forest lands,” he said.
In 1976, Congress touched off the first Sagebrush Rebellion by approving the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which declared that federal land within state borders would remain under federal control until further notice.
Advocates on both sides have been arguing over the legalities ever since. Advocates of federal land insist that the issue is settled, but critics call for Congress to treat Western states the same as other states.
“You don’t change these solemn compacts of statehood as the Supreme Court unanimously said in 2009 by a unilateral policy from Congress,” Mr. Ivory said at the debate. (Here is a link to recent BYU Law Review Article addressing the federal government’s compact-based duty to dispose of the public lands).
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