This year’s GOP platform pushes federal land transfers

“Returning” lands to states has long been a party plank and a shifting political landscape could open the door.


The Republican Party is drafting its 2016 platform, which represents a hard swerve to the right on social issues. But other parts of its stance have long been consistent – most notably, its push for transferring federal lands to state control.

Party platforms are not binding, but they do demonstrate party priorities – what the base thinks are the most important issues and beliefs. And they're important in steering politicians. Political scientist Gerald Pomper determined decades ago that lawmakers usually do cast votes that accord with platform positions, and that in presidential election years, about two-thirds of platform promises get fulfilled in some form during the following four years.

This year’s platform, which will be finalized at the upcoming GOP convention, includes a demand that the government “immediately pass universal legislation providing the timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. That’s consistent with the ideas presented in the 2012 version, which suggested privatizing some of those lands:

“Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership… The enduring truth is that people best protect what they own.”

Coconino National Forest
GOP lawmakers generally support transferring federal lands to state control. That could include lands like Doe Mountain in Arizona's Coconino National Forest.
National Forest Service

Many in the GOP have long been on the side of the Sagebrush Rebels; as far back as 1984, the party's platform called for decreasing federal holdings and increasing privatization: "With due recognition of the needs of the federal government and mindful of environmental, recreational, and national defense needs, we believe the sale of some surplus land will increase productivity and increase State and local tax bases. It will also unleash the creative talents of free enterprise in defense of resource and environmental protection."

By 1992, the wording in the platform more explicitly called for decreasing federal holdings and encouraging private development: “We also seek to reduce the amount of land owned or controlled by the government, especially in the western States. ... In order to provide an economic base for the people of the West, a public-private cooperative partnership on these lands for multiple use in an environmentally sound manner is imperative.

Transfer champions such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, are up for re-election this year, and if they win their races, as they likely will,  they’ll doubtless make such measures a central part of their legislative efforts. And the transfer drumbeat has been getting louder in many Western counties. Even as some explicitly reject the idea of putting states in charge of public lands, others are signing up with the American Lands Council, which works to further the goal of “returning” lands to states.

While the GOP’s public-lands platform isn’t anything new, it’s one more indication of a growing schism between two fundamentally different views of how federal lands should be handled. The Democrats’ 2016 platform contains this language:

“As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.”

While dozens of bills and other measures requiring federal land transfers have been introduced over the years, none have yet become law, and probably won’t as long as a Democrat sits in the White House. But conservative lawmakers will continue pushing for the disposal of federal lands – and may even succeed, should the national political landscape shift further right.

 Jodi Peterson is a senior editor with High Country News.  

Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jul 16, 2016 09:28 PM
This is really scary if republicans win. America as we know it will end. Public lands is our national heritage and with this countries population still growing,wild areas keep decreasing.
To me without public lands we become just like every other country,if not worse.
Nancie McCormish
Nancie McCormish Subscriber
Jul 18, 2016 01:35 PM
Kiss America's last wild horses goodbye as well, or accept the fact they will be raised in what are rangeland feedlots then slaughtered and sold to foreign markets. The same pattern will likely be followed for other wildlife species, water, and anything else that can be commodified on what are now public lands, held in public trust, many for MULTIPLE use. Think all this transfer philosophy will revive rural economies? Think again, cheap labor and exported wages are already common. The average citizens who can't afford a private golf course (much less be invited to play on one) will be confined in condominiums and probably find it hard to buy food produced in our own country. This is not a future any of us should vote or hope for.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jul 18, 2016 01:42 PM
It will become more a country of the rich for the rich and nothing for the rest. A country of the 1% for the 1%.
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Jul 21, 2016 07:00 PM
"you won't know what you've got 'til it's gone!". ..This is going to be one of the really sad epitaphs on Amerika!...All of those local white boys who think that they will have hit the jackpot will soon be disabused of the fantasy that they are envisioning for themselves!...They will be able to romp right up to the new gates on their ORVs...and come to a screeching halt...."Look at the new boss...Same as the old boss"....only more so!!...and there will be nothing for it! Is there a sadder species than Homo rapiens in its self-created dystopia!? Think not!
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jul 21, 2016 07:24 PM
AS a individual who is retired and worked in the natural resource field 44 years the resources keep getting chipped away. It sad we the people in this country can protect are resources for 250 years. Get one administration,one congress and its gone forever and wishes of people in the past and the future doesn't matter.
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Oct 29, 2016 06:17 PM
There is nothing in any civilization or governing or social system that is "divine" or set in concrete!! All human systems are based on myths and the tacit or explicit consent of the given populace....and are thus subject to changes varying from slight to radical....even "divine right" monarchs can b e overthrown (how can that be, if there is a Gawd!). The vulnerability of our system of in all systems on that , if a portion of the populace decides to no longer observe the legitimacy and procedures of the elected (as we have been seeing with the radicalized and imploding Republican Party over recent years), there is nothing to prevent the complete abrogation of our social contract. One aspect of that contract is that land that was acquired, whether by hook or by crook ....(.as in the cases of the Louisiana Purchase and the War on Mexico! , for example!)....remained the sole property of the Federal Government that acquired them in Our name as citizens of these United States....and have continue to manage them in Our name using Our tax dollars to do so.
These lands may have belonged ethically...or morally....if you will, to our First Nations...but, under International and Imperial "law" are the property of the sovereign state that acquired them ....and not to anyone or any other entity...except as explicitly designated!!
This should be abundantly clear....but appears not to be.....THERE IS NO F..KING "RETURN" OF LAND THAT AN ENTITY NEVER HAD TITLE TO...PERIOD!! this action...if it does happen.....will be in the form of an illegal takings theft from the citizens of the USA!
Furthermore.....if this outrage proceeds...I have yet to hear even one peep as to just how the populace of the Country is to be compensated for the decades of tax dollars that have been paid out for management, infrastructure and maintenance by the counties and states that are already planning on how they will fight over the spoils!.
Given, as we have just seen, that the Federal government is a helpless, hulking giant when it comes to defending itself from having its pocket picked by its own populace....I do fear for the prospects on this issue...the Plutocrats may get just what they want once again!!
BOY!....What I wouldn't give for a Philosopher King about now!