WASHINGTON, June 10, 2015 – Western states are continually introducing bills calling for the transfer of public lands from federal to state control. A leader in this movement, Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, told a meeting of the American Agri-Women in Washington this week that such transfers are necessary because federal management “is dysfunctional and it is destroying our lands.”
Since 2012, 10 of the 11 most-western states have introduced legislation calling for the transfer of public lands or to commission studies that assess the economic viability of a transfer. Most recently, the Nevada legislature passed a resolution that asks Congress to convey more than 7 million acres of federal land to state control.
Ivory, the author of Utah’s 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act and leader of the American Lands Council, noted that less than half of the public land in the Western U.S. is state-controlled, while in the eastern half of the country the figure is more than 95 percent. Public land transfer bills, including the one passed in Utah, exclude national parks, tribal lands, monuments and wilderness reserves.
The Utah legislation simply asks the federal government to “honor the same statehood terms” that did when it allowed states east of Colorado like Illinois and Iowa to reclaim public lands controlled by the federal government.
Supporters of land transfer bills claim that states would be able to better manage public lands for resource extraction as well as preservation. However, the Utah Sierra Club said public land transfer bills like the one passed in Utah amount to a “thinly veiled attempt to sell federal public lands to the highest bidder” for oil and gas extraction and development “while providing a permanent roadblock to all future to wilderness designation, lands preservation and habitat restoration.”
No one opposed to the land transfer movement spoke at the American Agri-Women event, designed to examine the public lands question, although a spokeswoman said officials from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service were invited.
Backing up the American Land Council’s position is a report published in March by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) – a think tank that argues that property rights and markets are better at managing public lands than government. The study examines the revenues and expenditures associated with federal land management compared with state trust land management in four Western states: Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona.
Those states earn an average of $14.51 for every dollar spent on state trust land management, while the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management generate only 73 cents in return for every dollar spent on federal land management, according to the PERC report. “States have a fiduciary responsibility to generate revenues from state trust lands, while federal land agencies face overlapping and conflicting regulations and often lack a clear mandate,” the report noted, adding that sates generate more revenue on various land management activities, including timber, grazing, minerals and recreation.
PERC noted that “despite the perception that state trust lands are managed solely for resource extraction, conservation leasing of state trust lands is becoming increasingly common.” The four states examined in the report all have state trust agencies that can lease land to individuals and environmental groups for conservation purposes, the report said.
Ivory has been the target of a newly formed group called the Campaign for Accountability, which asked Utah’s Attorney General to investigate the lawmaker, charging that he is “engaging in a scheme that defrauds taxpayers and misleads local officials into supporting an effort to return federal lands to the states that is patently unconstitutional and would impose prohibitively expensive costs on the states.”
In a statement responding to the group’s complaint, Ivory said: “These types of organizations have just destroyed Western public lands through this kind of litigation and bullying tactics.”
Some members of Congress recently formed a Federal Land Action Group to achieve the transfer of federal land to willing states. This group, chaired by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said it plans to build on the work started by Utah and other states in recent years.
“The federal government has been a lousy landlord for Western states and we simply think the states can do it better,” Stewart said. “If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control.”
Support for public lands transfer gained support in the U.S. Congress this year when the Senate approved a budget resolution that would establish a procedure for selling, exchanging or transferring to the states federal lands that aren’t national parks, monuments or reserves. The amendment, sponsored by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, passed 51-49 on March 26.
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