Over the last few years, a movement in Western states to "take back" federal lands has been gaining funding and followers. As we reported last October, eight states have considered the idea of late, but none so seriously as Utah. In 2012, Utah passed a law demanding 20 million acres of federal land, and the legislature has since allocated taxpayer money to studying the issue and devising a winning legal strategy. But even as excitement spread among some right-wing county commissions and state legislatures, most lawyers and observers agreed: There was no winning legal strategy. The federal government is under no obligation to transfer public lands over to the states.
But there might be another way to achieve the same goal: Go through Congress, instead of the courts.
Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, supporting the idea of selling, transferring or trading federal lands to the states. The measure is purely symbolic. It doesn't cover any specific parcels or give Congress any kind of new authority to chuck federal holdings. Proposals still have to make it past the House, Senate and the White House to go through. But the amendment is a "signal" that considering such bills is a priority of the Congress, says Robert Dillon, communications director for Murkowski's energy committee.
Jessica Goad, a policy advocate at the Center for Western Priorities, which opposes the state land-transfer movement, believes Murkowski was "testing the waters" with the amendment, attempting to gauge how her colleagues might vote on land transfer bills in the future. Such bills are likely in the pipeline. E&E Daily reported earlier this month that Michael Swenson, a D.C.-based lobbyist for the American Lands Council, the Utah-based group leading the states' movement, is educating "lawmakers on the benefits of relinquishing federal lands to the states." Swenson told E&E that he "expects federal legislation to be introduced by fall."Sportsmen's groups have been particularly vocal about their opposition to the land-transfer movement, believing that in the hands of the states, which lack the financial resources to manage them, lands would be developed and privatized, resulting in a loss of access. Whit Fosburgh, head of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, called the Murkowski amendment "a finger in the eye to sportsmen everywhere." In an email statement to High Country News, Fosburgh said: "It was not clear to us why the amendment was necessary, and its language was sufficiently broad to be worrisome about its potential implications for the future. Senator Murkowski may not have intended to suggest that millions of acres of public land be put on the market, but the unfortunately broad language of the amendment implies that."
On the Senate floor, however, Murkowski was unambiguous about why she believed the amendment was necessary: It is too difficult to drill, mine and otherwise develop energy on federal land. It's true that it is much easier to develop certain state lands. "Trust" lands, for instance, are explicitly intended for development and to make money for the states; they have no real conservation mandate, and are subject to few environmental regulations. Whether that's a good thing, of course, is a matter of opinion. It's also true that the shale booms have largely taken place on private land, but that's a function of geology more than regulation. North Dakota, for instance, has very little federal land.
It is not the case that federal lands are broadly hands-off for the energy industry. For proof, visit, well, Utah. Or, consider that onshore oil sales from federal lands increased from 96 million barrels in 2003 to 133 million barrels in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Curious how your Senator voted on Murkowski's amendment? It was almost a straight party-line vote, with only three Republicans coming out against it. Cory Gardner of Colorado was the lone Western Republican to vote no, joining all of the Western Democrats.
Cally Carswell is a High Country News contributing editor and is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.