How a federal land transfer could give California its key to secession

Fundamental changes in federal land ownership could become more politically feasible than ever.


Many Californians woke up the night after the presidential election thinking that they were living in a different country. A few felt so alienated that they publicly raised the possibility of seceding from the United States.  

There is no constitutional way, however, to do this. But there is a less radical step that would amount to a limited secession and would require only an act of Congress. Forty-five percent of the land in California is administered by the federal government — including 20 percent of the state in national forests and 15 percent under the Bureau of Land Management. Rather than outright secession, California could try to assert full state sovereignty over all this land.

Until Nov. 8, California wouldn’t have cared about this, but with the prospect of a Donald Trump administration soon managing almost half the land in the state, Californians may want to rethink their traditional stance. Otherwise, they are likely to face more oil and gas drilling, increased timber harvesting and intensive recreational use and development on federal land in the state.

Much of the rest of the West, moreover, might support their cause. In recent years, Utah has been actively seeking a large-scale transfer of federal lands. During the Obama years, Utah’s government has deeply resented the imposition of out-of-state values on the 65 percent of the state that is federally owned — just as California may now come to resent the outside imposition of new land management practices by a Trump administration.

The California Student Sustainability Coalition led a "Don't Frack LA!" protest to push for a a proposed moratorium that will stop all fracking activities that was proposed by Los Angeles city council in 2014.
Brooke Anderson/Flickr user

Utah, ironically, may now see a comprehensive land transfer as less urgent. That has happened before: The election of President Reagan in 1980 took the steam out of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Utah and elsewhere in the West. In retrospect, however, that proved to be shortsighted, as future administrations reversed course and asserted even more authority over Western lands. 

If California were to lead the charge, and with Trump as president, fundamental changes in the federal ownership of land in the West might become more politically feasible than ever before. There are additional strong arguments, moreover, for a transfer of federal lands (excluding national parks and military facilities) in the West to the states today. Over the region as a whole, the federal government owns almost 50 percent of the land, and higher percentages in many rural areas. When Washington, D.C., imposes policies and values that conflict with the majority views of the residents of whole states, the federal government, in effect, takes on the role of an occupying force. It may not be traditional colonialism, but there are resemblances.

Defenders of federal land management argue that the public lands belong to all Americans. Although advocates of a federal land transfer promise to keep the lands in state ownership, many Westerners fear that the states might privatize the lands outright or administer them for narrowly private interests. The implicit assumption in this is that there are core national values that should govern public-land management in all the Western states and that the federal government is best placed to advance these values. But the reality is that Americans are today deeply divided on many fundamental value questions — and these divisions are often geographically based.

Since at least the 1990s, many Westerners have become convinced that the management of federal lands in the West is dysfunctional no matter what party is in power. This should come as no surprise, since much of Washington itself is dysfunctional. 

So I propose the following: Congress should enact a law allowing each state to call a referendum on the question: Do you want the federal government to transfer federal lands in your state (excluding national parks and military lands) to state ownership? If the vote is affirmative, a transfer would follow automatically. You might call it a Scotland solution, adapted to American circumstances.

California could pursue its preservationist values, while Utah could allow wider access to its new lands. With public-land management decentralized to the state level, where there would be greater basic agreement on ends and means, it might finally be possible to overcome the political paralysis of the current federal land management system centered in Washington.

So I say, let Californians decide if they want to secede, at least in this partial way, and the residents of other Western states as well.

Robert H. Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a professor in the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland, and from 1975 to 1993, worked for eight different secretaries of the Interior Department.

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

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Dec 28, 2016 12:18 PM
Richard Crow
Richard Crow Subscriber
Dec 28, 2016 12:47 PM
I can't see this happening. The states don't have the money to manage the land. The federal misgovernment isn't going to give up all that control over people either.
Albert Sutlick
Albert Sutlick Subscriber
Dec 28, 2016 02:05 PM
I can accept the idea of a transfer of lands, but why does there need to be only one option of yes or no ? How about a multiple choice, where the beliefs of the citizens can be better assessed ? Perhaps at least one option would be "yes, but at least 80% of the transferred lands shall forever remain open to public use at no cost to state residents, and all funds received from the sale, leasing, or other use of lands shall be dedicated solely to the management of State recreational lands". I think the author underestimates the commitment of the public to public use of the lands. This is not a simple issue, and you cannot trust politicians to do what is in the best interests of the people. For further information, see the Bill of Rights.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Dec 28, 2016 02:18 PM
This is an insidious smokescreen for land transfer by an advocate for privatization of natural resources. Nelson is trying to appeal to a fear-mindset in a liberal California, with a much larger population than the other western states, to get something the far-right private property advocates have been pushing for years (e.g. the Malheur occupation, the Republican Party platform, the Utah resolution, etc..) but have been unable to achieve.
Katherine McCoy
Katherine McCoy Subscriber
Dec 28, 2016 05:23 PM
Mr. Nelson's rhetorical fling is fun but distressingly naive. State budgets would be unable to cover public land management and firefighting. Western counties currently receive an annual federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) for their federal lands; state budgets would find PILT payments far beyond their means; and without PILT, counties would be desperate for property tax revenues from these lands. Thus states and counties could never afford these public lands and would be forced to sell most. Privatization of our federal public lands would be the widespread result.
James & Laura Thompson
James & Laura Thompson Subscriber
Dec 29, 2016 08:40 AM
What is this doing in HCN? It looks like a middle school debate essay, complete with large holes in its logic and heavy use of dated tropes about the west. Here's the thing, Utahs lands are already "opened up", and the presumption of specialized local knowledge about managing landscapes is a farce. And all those people worried about privatization? A quick look at history shows that to be a very legitimate concern, key to the whole public lands debate.

Ernie Thompson
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Jan 01, 2017 08:24 PM
This is flat out Bullshit Award stuff..!! We have some University of Maryland cracker advising the premier Blue State on what to do!!...What is this, anyway!?...And how the Hell did HCN get duped into printing it anyhow!!...Progressives are not going to be complicit in selling the West down the river!!l
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen Subscriber
Jan 06, 2017 01:24 PM
No way. we going to stick together on public lands staying under federal control for the very reasons that you stated then dismissed in your conclusion
I don't want to fight this every 2 years when some joker will get a petition to continually put this on the Ballot. I live across the border from Utah which is just an imaginary line in my mind. I follow John wesley Powell and Wallace Stegner viewpoint that jurisdictions should follow river drainage and I live in the colorado river basin and want a vote on anything that has to to do with the Colorado plateau
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jan 06, 2017 02:06 PM
Additional food for thought on the reality of possible California secession:[…]fornia-wants-to-secede.html