Opinion: Public Land Transfer is a Bad Deal for Western Communities

Zion National Park, Utah. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bisett

Whether Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, red or blue, most voters still agree with the words of American poet Woody Guthrie: this land was made for you and me. Americans put great value on our national parks, forests, and wildlife preserves that span the country, and most of us want to keep these public lands public. A 2016 poll from Colorado College found that 58% of residents in seven western states, where almost half of the land is federally owned, oppose selling the land to private parties or transferring land management to state agencies. The study found that the sentiments crossed party lines. The majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents from Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico agreed that federal agencies should remain responsible for our nation’s public lands.

For lawmakers though, the fate of our public lands is far from settled.

In January, for example, Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill that aimed to transfer roughly 3.4 million acres of public land to the states. The unspecified territories from 10 states were equivalent to the combined areas of Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Parks. Chaffetz’s bill “The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act” would have given states the power to sell land to private logging, ranching, and mining companies. Days after the announcement, environmentalists and outdoorsmen rallied in the streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Helena, Montana. Thousands more signed petitions and angrily phoned representatives, calling for the bill’s removal. The proposal survived for just 10 days. On February 2nd, the Utah Congressman announced on Instagram that the bill’s death was effective immediately.

Chaffetz’s attempt to redistribute this land wasn’t the first of its kind, and it likely won’t be the last. Three weeks before his proposal the House Republicans passed a rule change that makes it easier for the federal government to transfer land to the states. Just one month after Chaffetz’ retracted his bill, Republican Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Resources Committee, asked congressional budget writers to dedicate $50 million for future transfers. The Center for Biological Diversity recently reported that in the last five years, legislators have introduced 132 (mostly unsuccessful) bills aimed to diminish federal control of public lands.

Chaffetz argues that redistributing control over public lands would allow state governments to make policies that reflect local interests and give rural communities an economic boost – an opinion that the Republican Party supported at the 2016 Republican National Convention last summer as part of their agenda to roll back government control in the US. “I call public land transfer the libertarian’s dream,” said Gregg Cawley, a professor at the University of Wyoming Department of Political Science.

The reality though, is that state governments would actually be worse off with more locally-controlled land. Many western states don’t have the money or manpower to account for so much territory – especially in Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Alaska, and Nevada, where more than half of the state is federally-owned. Rural communities in Idaho need taxpayer dollars from the rest of the country in order to manage this land, especially in the summer months when wildfires become destructive and costly. The Bureau of Land Management has a billion-dollar budget with more than 30,000 employees, and even with those resources the agency is understaffed. Local governments, with much smaller budgets and staff, would be forced to either raise taxes or sell the land to private companies if public land transfer happened on the scale that Chaffetz and Bishop advocate.

Oregon’s State Land Board is facing that predicament right now. Elliott State Forest is a popular destination in Oregon, but the state board has lost money for years from managing the forest. Since state law requires the land to turn a profit (a common mandate for state-managed lands) the board is now looking to sell the 82,000 acres jointly to a local timber company and a native American tribe. Many citizens oppose this deal, including Oregon Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, which argues that the forest has one of the highest rates of recreational use in the state. They also believe privatization would negatively impact the forest’s fragile ecosystem.

The debate over Elliott State Forest is a prime example of states’ inability to afford public land management, but it also demonstrates the pushback that governments have felt from hunters and anglers. Many hunting groups from both liberal and conservative backgrounds worry that land transfer would affect their access to the land. When Chaffetz proposed to transfer 3.4 million acres of public land, outdoorsmen objected. When he retracted the bill he tried to reach out to hunting constituents by posting on Instagram a photo of himself wearing camouflage and holding up a young hunting dog. “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands,” said Chaffetz in the post. Many outdoorsmen were not fooled. Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers called the bill a “slap in the face,” and warned public lands advocates to “stay vigilant.”

Beyond issues of land access, selling public lands is also a poor market strategy. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the real estate value of all public lands amounts to $408 billion, but recreation on those brings in $646 billion in revenues and 7.6 million jobs each year. Only Wyoming and Arizona would profit from selling public lands to private interests because of their fuel and energy resource potential, according to Cawley, but the rest of the western states would very likely lose money. John Freemuth a professor of public policy at Boise State University, noted that in many cases it’s more profitable for both federal agencies and private entities to lease land than to sell. In 2014 the federal government made more than $13 billion by renting out public land to oil, gas, and coal companies for less than $5 an acre.

Regardless of public opinion and economic reality, there are no legal grounds that support public land transfer to state hands – mainly because many public lands pre-date the states. All land owned by the federal government was purchased or acquired centuries ago from France, Spain, Mexico, Great Britain, Russia, or taken from native tribes. Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the US, was established on federally-owned land by Ulysses Grant in 1872, eight years before Wyoming was even granted statehood. Even as the federal union granted territories statehood, the government still retained fractions of the territory as public land. Many land transfer advocates argue that public land is an example of government overreach, but history shows that you can’t reclaim something that you’ve never had.

At the end of the day, Americans love their public lands, and it’s unlikely that land transfer proposals will gain much traction. Emboldened Republicans should work with federal public land agencies to support rural communities instead of gunning for a lose-lose situation.

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