We have been immersed in another round of what some like to call “public lands theater,” the seemingly endless war over who best to manage or, perhaps even own, the federal land estate of the United States. Last year the Arizona legislature tried to demand almost all the federal lands within its boundaries, even the Grand Canyon. The legislature submitted the demand to a vote of Arizonians, and lost 66% to 33%. Perhaps the notion of "Grand Canyon State Park" put some people off. It put me off, but I was a ranger at Lees Ferry once.
Utah began heading down the same path, thought better of it, and then first called for a study of the various issues and problems regarding the management of federal lands. Idaho and New Mexico have also considered similar moves and strategies; certainly an unbiased study makes sense. What I would like to do here is outline some starting points for conversations that might move things in a positive direction.
1. These lands are public lands managed by the national government. Congress can decide that the states ought to manage them, by transferring such lands. This is the only way to do this. States cannot "demand" them, say that federal management is unconstitutional or "require" the national government to hand them over. The supremacy clause of the US Constitution, and court understandings that federal lands are federal property, make that clear.
2. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and forest planning regulations have created frustrating decision gridlock. Most observers, on all sides of land management debates, and Forest Service professionals, think there is a lot of room for reform.
3. The proposition that "the states can do a better job" makes no sense. They could not, if they had to follow all the laws and procedures that federal land agencies must follow. Because state land is managed under a different legal mandate, we are comparing apples to oranges. A proper way to test this assertion would be to hold all management mandates the same.
4. Not every acre under federal management needs to be so. The system was not created through some sort of rational land designation process. Conversely, certain newer concerns, such as the protection of biodiversity, confront the fact that federally managed protected areas do not always align with where the species are. Boundaries should be open to alteration.
5. Collaboration is slow, painful and is often, but not always, working. More timber is coming off some national forests in Idaho due to collaborative agreement. The people involved in the Idaho collaboratives have learned a great deal and have insights on how to make effective recommendations and where the landmines lie. I have watched them work and applaud their efforts. They are practicing democracy. It is true elsewhere too.
6. Many easterners, including the media, often don't know the difference between national parks and national forests, and they haven't a clue about the Bureau of Land Management. Nonetheless they feel that these are public lands, partly theirs. They might be receptive to concerns of westerners with extensive federal land in their backyards, and the lost revenues that often means, but we have yet to discover a common starting point for these conversations.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
John Freemuth is a professor of political science and public policy at Boise "State" University.
Photo of Grand Canyon National Park courtesy Flickr user krandolph.