Below is a list of common questions that come up about the Transfer of Public Lands. If you have additional questions feel free to add them to the comments on the bottom of the page or email them to ALC at [email protected]. Additional documents and information can also be found in our Library.


Q: What is going to be done about existing rights?

A: All valid existing rights including grazing, mining, timber, water, recreational access, and others will continue to be recognized.


Q: Don’t these lands belong to all of us?

A: No, public lands rightfully belong to the citizens of the state in which those lands reside, just as lands in eastern states belong to the citizens of those states.  Ownership by any specific state will not reduce enjoyment of the lands by anyone.  Just as Americans all feel welcome to enjoy the beauty of the color in the Northeast in the fall, and the beaches of Florida in the winter, Americans will feel as welcome as ever, if not more so, to enjoy the experience of Utah's snow, color country, and plentiful wildlife through protection and use of the resources by the best managers – those closest to the lands.


Q: How will this legislation benefit the states, education, and economy?

A: The states in the West have trillions of dollars in abundant mineral resources.  Yet, these states are perpetually among the last in the nation in per-pupil funding for education. This is because under federal control, access has been greatly denied for the multiple use of our public lands.  Responsibly utilizing these resources will grow the economy and the tax base providing the revenues needed to close the education funding-gap and to fund essential government services.


Q: What about protections for wildlife and habitat?

A: The management of wildlife and habitat will change - for the better. Through improvements to the range, wetlands and other wildlife habitat made possible by more cost effective operations, use of local knowledge of the land, and reliance on centuries-old sound stewardship principles, state and local agencies can provide more effective and responsive protection and management of game species and native species to the enjoyment of all Americans, invasive species can be better controlled, and wetlands vital to migratory birds better protected.


Q: Will the lands be sold to the highest bidder?

A: No. Federal public lands will be come State public lands. The lands will continue to be managed for multiple use, i.e., sustainable yield and protection of resources, hunting and fishing, and recreational access.  The legislation passed in Utah also paves the way for the creation of a Public Lands Commission to responsibly manage the lands and will preserve the expectation of multiple-use of the lands that have developed over the last 116 years since statehood.  


Q: Doesn’t the state already get money from public land?

A: States currently receive a share of federal mineral receipts, and local governments receive a small amount from the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools Program.  These programs are federal revenue sharing programs designed to partially compensate for the lack of opportunity to develop a sustainable full-spectrum economy from the federal lands.  It is expected that state ownership of the lands will provide sufficient compensation to the public for the use of the renewable and non-renewable resources of the state.  Comparable operations on state and federal lands show the states can not only provide for healthy landscapes and produce renewable and non-renewable resources compatibly, but can also do it for a small fraction of the cost.


Q: Will I be able to hunt, fish, 4-wheel, hike, bike, etc.?

A: Yes. As responsible stewards, states in the West will manage the public lands to enhance and improve access and recreational opportunities.


Q: What will happen with tribal lands?

A: Tribal lands are not affected by Transfer of Public Lands bills.


Q: What about grazing rights?

A: Once fully in control of range-lands, western states will be able to guarantee grazing rights, and will be able to engage in proactive sustainable efforts to increase the yield of forage, increase the yield of clean water, and reduce the effects of wildlife and invasive species on the range through locally-driven, on-the-ground response.


Q: Won’t this harm tourism and outdoor recreation?

A: No, if anything it will enhance them because there will be better access and better protection of the truly sensitive areas that demand proactive protection practices. 

The Transfer of Public Lands will allow states to maintain vibrant healthy landscapes and to find the best management practices to enhance or restore areas which have suffered greatly under the process-heavy federal bureaucracy.  States in the west have demonstrated that best management practices, coupled with sound fiscal policy, lead to healthy, vibrant landscapes at a fraction of the cost, by allowing the money to be spent on-the-ground, rather than in endless studies and useless litigation as required by federal regulation.

Outdoor tourism thrives because healthy landscapes, abundant terrestrial, bird and aquatic wildlife and the opportunity to engage the outdoors, through one's own labors provide the experience people seek. Proper management of the land, water, forestry and wildlife resources by the state, coupled with guaranteed access to the recreational areas, and encouragement to private enterprise to provide recreational opportunities for those who desire it, will foster a healthy tourism industry.


Q: What will happen to our forests?

A: Local management and decision-making will result in healthier, more accessible, and more productive forests.


Q: What would a Transfer of Public Lands Act do?

A: A Transfer of Public Lands Act (TPLA) is legislation directing the federal government to transfer ownership of some public lands within a state back to that state.


Q: Which lands would be transferred?

A: Each state would have the opportunity to designate which lands would be available for transfer and which would not. However, general expectations are as followed:

A1 – Only federal lands that are designated for multiple use would be affected. This specifically leaves out things like national parks, national monuments, congressionally designated wilderness areas, tribal lands (reservations), and deeded federal properties like buildings, military reservations and others.

A2 – What’s left are primarily federal lands managed by the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, although there are a few other federal owners, depending on the state.

A3 – Covered lands would be those that congress has set aside in the past specifically for balanced multiple use, including for recreation and natural resource development.


Q: How much land does the federal government own?

A1: The short answer is about 640 million acres.

A2: But it’s more meaningful to think of federal land ownership as a percentage of a state. East of the Rocky Mountain West, the federal government owns on average less than 10% of each state, with most under 5%. The federal government owns an average of about 50% of Rocky Mountain West states.


Q: Why the difference in federal land ownership between east and west?

A: Several factors account for the difference. First, most federal lands in the eastern and plains states were disposed of in the early 19th century by selling them, ceding them back to the state, or homesteading them. The Western states were brought in mostly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by which time a movement was underway to preserve federal lands for a variety of reasons – many of them valid. In addition, the nation had neither the need nor the technology to develop the enormous amounts of land absorbed with western state accessions. So, much of it remains in federal hands by either choice or default until this day.


Q: How did they become federal lands if they were part of territories that became states?

A1: All western and many eastern states’ Enabling Acts – the contracts between the territories and federal government that made them states – included a clause to “forever disclaim all rights and title” to public lands in the state and provide clean title to the federal government.

A2: However, the “forever disclaim” sentence goes on to say “… until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States.” TPLA advocates believe this places a duty on the federal government to dispose of those lands turned over at statehood, and that Washington has reneged on that duty.


Q: Has anything like TPLA been tried before?

A1: Action against federal land control in the West has flared up about every other generation or since the mid-19th century, usually as a result of new regulations, land grabs, restrictions, or increased fees. The latest such effort was the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and early 1980s, where Western states – starting with Nevada – recoiled against enormous restrictions and takings under President Jimmy Carter, primarily using the recent National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA).

A2: The Sagebrush Rebellion ended under President Reagan when his Secretary of Interior James Watt implemented his Good Neighbor Policy, wherein Western governors and land users were given a greater voice in federal land management decisions, even as the overall federal estate was expanded and greatly upgraded.


Q: What’s the difference between the Sagebrush Rebellion and the current TPLA movement?

A: The Sagebrush rebellion ended through accommodation and, to some degree, co-option. While the triggers and circumstances are similar today, the current administration has instead reacted with confrontation and created an adversarial relationship instead of a partnership. Western interests simply have reached the point where they have more to lose by not pushing back against federal policies than by trying to live with them.


Q: Can the states afford to manage the lands if they win them back?

A: Each state will have to answer this question with its own data and circumstances. Preliminary studies have shown that state governments manage their lands at less cost per acre or visitor than does the federal government. Assuming a “best use” determination that balances aesthetic and economic uses for their lands, these data indicate that states stand to gain overall revenue while still acting as responsible stewards for future generations, and balancing current aesthetic and recreational uses with economic development.


Q: What are some of the uses and values of the lands we’re talking about?

A: Each piece of land has a “best use” based on its individual characteristics and location. In many cases, a land’s best use might be purely aesthetic or recreational, and so no economic development would be appropriate. It’s difficult to put a dollar value on these lands, but they do contribute to state and local economies through tourism and recreational spending. Other lands have high economic and/or low aesthetic or recreational value – or those things are not mutually exclusive. Trillions of dollars in natural resources lie on and below these lands that can be responsibly developed, providing jobs, education funding, energy and food independence, and more while the land itself can be conserved for future generations. This is called stewardship, and westerners have been responsible stewards of our own lands for generation.


Q: What have western states done so far to regain control of their lands?

A1: As of early 2014, one state (Utah) has passed a bill demanding the return of federal lands not excepted in Q2. Five other states have created commissions or committees to study the cost/benefit of similarly demanding transfer, with many of them expected to take action in 2015.


Q: Do eastern states have a stake in this battle?

A: Yes. Most western states are net “takers” of federal spending, in large part because they lack access to the resources that would allow them to be self-sufficient. Additionally, the federal government spends billions of dollars annually to manage federal lands in the west. Eastern states should not have to pay for the privilege of making western states into welfare cases.


Q: What comes next if TPLA is successful in a state?

A: Prior planning is essential. TPLA advocates must convince their fellow citizens that their intent is not to “rape, ruin, and run,” but rather that their goals serve a broad national interest and the cause of fairness, and that they have a plan to responsibly determine each parcel’s “best use” as responsible stewards for current and future generations

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  • Scott-Pete Simmons
    commented 2016-08-26 00:27:02 -0600
    The question"How did they become federal lands if they were part of territories that became states?" is misleading. They were already federal lands and had been since acquired by the federal government through various treaties. If there was a bonafide duty to dispose of lands it would be enforceable in court and would have been years ago. The simple fact is no court has ever recognized that duty. I have read the equal footing arguments and as far as I am aware no court has held them to apply to land disposal either. As a matter of policy I agree the lands should be turned over to the states and I personally believe they should then be sold into private ownership. There is no evidence anywhere that the Eastern states have an advantage because the State controls the land . The only evidence is they have an advantage because the land is held by private landowners.
  • Dale Brethower
    commented 2016-02-18 13:30:23 -0700
    Excellent set of questions! Making the answers come through will require work and diligent oversight. I’ll help.
  • Richard Leech
    commented 2015-06-10 17:35:13 -0600
    Let’s do it !