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Know the West

The counties that actively oppose a federal lands transfer

Commissioners fear states could reduce county power and remove public access.


Over the past few years, several Western states have passed or proposed legislation to study the possibility of transferring ownership of federal lands from the American public to states. Utah finished a study last fall; Idaho has conducted threeMontana and Nevada have also put out studies. Arizona and Wyoming passed study bills this year. Oregon has a proposal in the works; bills have failed in Colorado, New Mexico and Washington. Supporters of today’s movement, which echoes similar efforts over the past century, say the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service mismanage land and are driven by Eastern bureaucrats out of touch with Western issues. 

A counter-movement is now percolating through a growing number of Western counties. In the state of Colorado, San Miguel, La Plata, Pitkin, San Juan, Eagle, Summit and Boulder counties all oppose transferring ownership of federal land to states. “People think this is just the Sagebrush Rebellion (a resurgence from the 1970s and '80s movement) and it will never go anywhere,” says Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner in Colorado. “But we have an entirely different tenor in Washington, DC now. It has been federal government by people who hate federal government."

Public land at Red Desert, Sweetwater County, Wyoming.
Flickr user weesam2010
The Pitkin resolution says that county has "gone to great lengths to ensure that appropriate rights of access to federal lands remain open to the public." Richards worries that if a land transfer happened, public access to that land would be in jeopardy. 

San Miguel County’s resolution, which passed in March, also indicated access for recreation was a major concern. The Salt Lake City council in Utah and Teton and Albany counties in Wyoming passed resolutions opposing the transfer of lands in May. 

The commission of Sweetwater County, Wyoming, sent a letter opposing a land transfer to the county’s state senators and representatives in January. The letter cited potential loss of public access and multiple use, and weakened environmental protections. Sweetwater is a notable addition to the opposition movement because at the moment, it’s home to more Republicans than Democrats — a combination that usually equals more support for states’ rights than for federal control.

“I’m out of step with my Republican colleagues,” says Republican Wally Johnson, chairman of the Sweetwater County Commission. Forty-three percent of his county’s assessed valuation is in oil and gas development, and Johnson believes the best way to make sure his constituents retain those jobs is if the federal lands stay with the feds: “I have a seat at the table. I’m not too sure that would happen if the state controlled it.”

The Sweetwater County Commission is also concerned about the financial cost states would have to shoulder in a massive lands transfer scenario. Wyoming’s current budget allocates a million dollars to each county annually for infrastructure repairs. But Mark Kot of Sweetwater's planning department, says that’s barely enough to pay for a mile of paved road: “The state has a hard time budgeting money right now for community infrastructure repairs.” He wonders how states could also cover the millions that federal agencies allocate annually to each state to pay for management of public lands, including firefighting. According to a 2013 report from Headwaters Economics, the Forest Service and Department of Interior allocate an average of $3.1 billion yearly to protect communities nationwide from wildfire. 

Another unanswered question surrounding the possibility of a federal-to-state land transfer is how the change would impact ranchers. Richards of Pitkin County worries states could sell that grazing land to private owners, or in other counties or states with energy reserves, the state could look for other lucrative tenants — like oil and gas developers. Of course, that's only if states somehow wrested mineral rights in addition to surface rights from the federal government. “As a state, you’d be in the position of managing for maximum revenue,” she says. (Right now, states generally have no obligation to manage for multiple use, as the feds do.) Legal experts, though, say it's extremely unlikely states would ever gain control of mineral rights. As HCN previously reported: “(Bob Keiter, a University of Utah law professor) points out that historically, in land transfers and exchanges, the federal government did not grant mineral rights to known reserves.” 

Richards also worries that taxes and fees would have to go way up in order for states to keep ranchers on that public land. Currently in Colorado, agricultural property taxes and fees to graze livestock on federal land are extremely low. Grazing fees have been the source of bitter controversy for decades. Ranchers who subscribe to an anti-fed viewpoint have consistently lobbied to retain the algorithm that keeps the annual fee dysfunctionally low. And yet, when I asked Demar Dahl, an Elko, Nevada, county commissioner who’s a vocal advocate of the lands transfer idea and a board member of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, he wasn’t concerned about grazing fees increasing, in the case of a federal-to-state land transfer. “I think most ranchers would be glad to pay a higher fee because it’s a more stable environment,” Dahl said. “You’re so much closer to the government.”

That last point about whether transfers would put locals closer to government control, I bounced off Wally Congdon, vice president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. Congdon is of the view that towns and counties have more power now than they would if states took over land management, in large part because federal agencies are required to work with locals to make federal plans consistent with local plans. “We have the most horsepower to participate with the way the federal law is now,” he says. “If you want to transfer to the state, fine, but change the laws of the state.” 

Congdon says that the federal land transfer movement is obstructionist and the opposite of civic engagement. “This is like the movie Network,” he says. “When people just go to the window, throw it open and say, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.’ Well, guess what guys, that is not participation in government.” 

If your county has passed a resolution for or against a federal land transfer to state hands, please email the author or let us know in the comment section below.


Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News.