The folly of “taking back” the West

 

Do 700 million acres of national parks, national monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management units belong to you and your fellow Americans? No, according to the increasingly popular notion in the West that it's time for states to "take back" federal land.

"Taking back" property that belongs to Alaskans and Floridians and everyone in between is even a plank in the GOP platform. A resolution, entitled "In Support of Western States Taking Back Public Lands" reads: "The Republican National Committee calls upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the imminent transfer of public lands to all willing Western states."

Taking back something that never belonged to you presents multiple problems, not the least of which is semantics. But this has never discouraged proponents whose first order of business is to ignore constitutional law.

Here's a fact they don't want you to know: As a condition for entering the union, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Nevada disclaimed all legal right and title to unappropriated public lands.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, site of many debates over public land use.

Nevertheless, in 2015 state lawmakers in the West introduced 37 grossly unconstitutional bills promoting seizure of lands belonging to all Americans. Utah's Legislature has gone so far as to appropriate $2 million supposedly to oversee the land grab. And a commission of Utah legislators has voted to spend $14 million suing the federal government for control of public lands.

The bills and litigation can't possibly succeed, but that's not their intent. They're designed as messages to the U.S. Congress. That's where the danger lies.

The messages are getting through. Last February Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., introduced the "Federal Land Freedom Act of 2015," which would transfer to the states management of energy production on millions of U.S. acres.

In March the House and Senate passed a joint nonbinding resolution to help states seize and sell America's public lands. The same month Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., introduced a bill that would authorize his state to sell your land.

Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced legislation in 2014 that would have prohibited the federal government from owning more than half the land within one state.

On the stump in Nevada last June, presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., drew thunderous applause when he declared: "I'd either sell or turn over all the land management to the states."

Leading the ovation, and granted a private audience by Paul, was take-back-the-West folk hero Cliven Bundy, who has intentionally trespassed his cattle on BLM range for more than two decades, amassing $1 million in unpaid grazing fees (almost four times more than the 16,000 other BLM grazing leasers combined). In March 2014, when BLM agents finally mustered the resolve to impound Bundy's cattle, he summoned a 300-man "militia" that ran them off at gunpoint. They then returned the cattle. Neither Bundy nor his militia has been prosecuted.

The Department of Homeland Security had it right when it warned that Bundy's "perceived success likely will embolden other militia extremists." Jerad and Amanda Miller attended Bundy's felonious standoff and spewed support for his cause on Facebook and YouTube (getting "likes" from the National Rifle Association, Rand Paul and Ron Paul). Three months later the couple shot to death two cops and a civilian in Las Vegas. Then, on Jan. 2, 2016, an armed militia, led by Bundy's sons Ammon, Ryan and Mel, broke into and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Building in Oregon, vowing to kill anyone who jailed two arsonists convicted of purposely setting fire to BLM land where they'd poached deer.

Anyone who wonders what Western states would do with U.S. land should consider what they've already done with it. In exchange for relinquishing all claims on public property new states were awarded "trust lands." Trust lands have generally been used to create revenue via oil and gas extraction, logging, mining and outright sale.

For example, of Nevada's original 2.7 million acres of trust land only 3,000 acres remain. In Colorado you can fish and camp on virtually all federal land and hunt on most. But you can't hunt, fish or camp on most state land because it's reserved for extractive industry.

The attempted heist of your land in the West is about one thing only -- private profiteering. If it succeeds, it will mean no-trespassing signs and death to much of your fish and wildlife.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He serves as conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.