Land-transfer advocates seek authority instead of ownership

The Trump administration isn’t giving land to states, but it is giving states more control over public lands.


Fed up with the way the Obama administration was managing public lands, Utah passed a bill in 2012 demanding that more than 31 million acres of federal land be turned over to the state. Utah’s land-transfer legislation, though ultimately unsuccessful, kicked off a wave of similar proposals across the West, but the once-boisterous land-transfer movement has sputtered under President Donald Trump.

The push to transfer public lands is losing steam even as its proponents get closer to their goal: state control over federal lands. New policy proposals from the Trump administration and proposed laws have quietly changed the tenor of the struggle over land management. With a sympathetic administration and Congress, the movement has shifted to a push for greater influence over federal lands rather than outright ownership.

The federal government administers vast swaths of the West, including more than half of Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. Since the 1970s, several waves of the Sagebrush Rebellion have risen and crested: Local and state activist groups, along with the ranching, logging and mining industries, have pushed back against federal bureaucracy and laws such as the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, demanding more local say in how federal lands are managed.

Regardless of that longtime antagonism, cooperation between states and the federal government on public lands is common. For example, even as the land-transfer movement was reaching a fever pitch in 2014, President Barack Obama signed a farm bill that expanded cooperation between states and federal land managers on forest management, allowing states to log public lands adjacent to state-owned parcels. Furthermore, federal agencies are required by law to consult with states and tribes on major projects and permitting decisions.

Calls for transfers of federal land to states tend to fade as public lands are opened up to oil and gas production.

Now, as the Trump administration opens up record amounts of public lands to development and federal agencies eagerly slash regulations, the movement has lost its momentum. “States that were involved … have shifted with the Trump administration, because the administration is more accepting of the state cause,” said Robert Keiter, a law professor at the University of Utah who has written extensively about the issue. That echoes the pattern seen under previous conservative administrations, Keiter said. The first incarnation of the Sagebrush Rebellion, for example, faded in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan’s first Interior secretary, James Watt, pursued major increases in oil and gas development on public lands. Like Watt, current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has pushed for more development on federal land.

Zinke has also moved to give states more say in wildlife management on public lands. A Sept. 10 memorandum from Zinke to Interior Department leadership calls on federal land managers to defer to states on hunting and wildlife protection.

Now, the potential impacts of ceding federal wildlife management authority to states are generating some controversy in Alaska. Last year, the Interior Department began the process of rolling back hunting regulations in Alaska’s national preserves to more closely match state hunting laws. The rule changes, which are currently in a public comment period, would allow previously banned hunting practices, including baiting and trapping bears and killing wolves and coyotes in their dens. “It is shameful for Interior Secretary Zinke to endorse a war on bears and wolves in Alaska’s national preserves,” said Theresa Pinero, the CEO and president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Brown bears in Alaska would be hunted and trapped under different rules if the federal government shifts management authority to states.

Meanwhile, several Western legislators have proposed bills to limit federal land management authority, including Utah Republicans Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Mike Lee, both staunch supporters of land transfer. Through a piecemeal approach, these bills transfer some federal decision-making and management authority to states.

A bill introduced by Bishop last October, for example, would reform the Antiquities Act and limit the ability of the president to create national monuments; such a law would have given county and state governments veto power over the designation of Bears Ears National Monument near the end of the Obama administration. And Lee has proposed a bill that would eliminate endangered species protections for wildlife or rare plants that exist only in one state, saying such situations should be outside the purview of federal management.

These bills and a handful of others represent a shifting strategy within the land-transfer movement, according to a paper by University of Montana public policy experts Martin Nie and Patrick Kelly. Rather than seeking to own federal land, which comes with the financial burden of management and law enforcement, proponents are simply seeking more authority to manage lands as they see fit, said Nie. “The result would largely be the same, he said.There is little difference between transferring ownership and simply ceding to state and local governments all decision making authority.”

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] 

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