How do states treat the lands they own?

An investigation into state land management, to better understand what’s at stake in federal land transfers.

 

One of the planks in the Republican platform calls for the transfer of an undisclosed number of acres of federal public lands to Western states. This land transfer, the party argues, would benefit states “and the nation as a whole,” because “residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live.” It is unclear how the transfer of public lands would benefit the entire country, but it seems to me that such a transfer on any scale would change the character of the American West.

Given that, and given that the GOP holds the Oval Office and both chambers of Congress, the so-called “land-transfer movement” is worthy of a hard look. Over the last nine months, this magazine set out to learn what it could about how states treat the lands they already have, in order to see whether the public would benefit from a transfer. Writer and former HCN intern Emily Guerin went to North Dakota to see what happens to state and federal parks under an oil boom, while Contributing Editor Cally Carswell investigated how rare plants are treated on different lands in New Mexico. And we spent many long hours analyzing the policies of Western states when it comes to land use.

The bottom line is that land generally fares worse under state management. And even if local constituencies do know best how to protect the land, they ultimately have less say in how state land is used. I come from two families of High Plains homesteaders, and I understand the value of public lands, where we hunted, fished, gathered wood and camped. I’d hate to see them leased, sold or otherwise lost to the highest bidder.

Federal lands belong to all of us, but they came at a high price. They were the product of the expansion of the United States, much to the disadvantage of Indigenous populations who had no say in how the lands were disposed. The West was seized through war, treachery and a doctrine of greed, and then divvied out to a mostly white population, who gained tremendous capital from its resources. That’s why any decision we make about the public lands now should be made with the greatest good in mind, not the continued financial benefit of a single class of people.

The West’s vast landscapes are more than just a source of wealth. They are a place for contemplation and beauty, of restoration and bounty. They are the last vestige of the American frontier, a reminder of our brutal, bloody past as well as a sign of our hope for a healthy future. And they are not to be taken — or given away — lightly.