State bills to study federal-to-state land transfers

A rundown of the legislation in each state and a look into the motives behind them.

 

For the last several decades, efforts to transfer the oversight of federal land to states has arisen only in isolated legislative initiatives that eventually died out. But in a mad rush since 2012, 10 of the 11 Western states have commissioned or considered studies to look into hypothetical federal-to-state transfers. Just this spring, a dozen such initiatives have seen western legislatures; three have passed. And on Thursday, one failed in Colorado. 

These efforts and studies refuse to go away, despite the unlikelihood of their ever going anywhere. They arose concurrently with a larger movement to actually enact those land transfers. The latter movement began when a number of Utah legislators, dissatisfied with the federal government’s management of lands, passed Republican Rep. Ken Ivory’s 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act, demanding that the federal government hand over more than 20 million acres to the state. Ten other states have considered similar legislation since then. The argument for transfer is legally dubious, but western politicians have commissioned studies to ask if transfers are logistically feasible, and whether they could benefit their states’ economies.

The effects of a transfer would be different in every state—and each state that’s studied the idea has done so in a slightly different way. Utah commissioned university economists to look at potential economic outcomes of a transfer; Wyoming tasked local politicians to gather testimony on what effects a transfer would have. The studies use a diverse set of approaches—but critics of the movement maintain that misguided conservative politics power them all.

Dixie National Forest in Utah is currently managed by the federal government. Photograph courtesy of Todd Burritt.
Some legislators are trying to distance themselves from the larger movement, at least on the surface, to prove that the studies they’re commissioning will be neutral. Rep. Kerry White, R-Montana, introduced House Bill 496, which called for $35,000 to study transfer feasibility. After the bill was tabled in March, the original transfer language was replaced with a call for a general analysis of federal management of Montana lands. In a hearing earlier this month, disagreement erupted over the purpose of the bill—whether it was meant to solicit neutral research, or simply to push forward the land transfer agenda.

In Utah, University of Utah economist Jan Stambro does not consider the bill that commissioned her study, An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah, merely a political push for land transfers. “The study was commissioned just to give answers,” she says. The bill called on neutral economists to conduct the study thoroughly, and the conclusions Stambro and her colleagues arrived at appear to be neutral, too. “Forecasting the full economic effects...is simply not possible,” the study conjectured, but it may be feasible, under certain circumstances, for Utah to profit from managing its federal lands. The study concluded that in some scenarios, in which Utah increases oil and gas development and negotiates high royalties, the state could likely cover management costs—if oil and gas prices remain high.

Here’s a rundown of the Western federal land transfer study bills and initiatives that have been proposed, passed or tabled since 2012.

Arizona: HB 2658, sponsored by Republican Rep. Brenda Barton, passed in March. It creates a committee of legislators to study impacts of a land transfer through consultations with experts and surveys of county commissioners. The cost of the study process is unspecified.

Colorado: HB 232, sponsored by Republican Rep. Randy Baumgardner, failed this week. It would have created a task force of Colorado county commissioners to study the transfer.

Idaho: Republican Rep. Lawerence Denney commissioned a legislative task force in 2013 to undertake a $20,000 feasibility study and a $61,000 legal study. The former investigated whether the state could generate enough income off the lands to manage them; the latter investigated the legal case for the transfer. The committee concluded that economically, the transfer might be feasible, though the legal case would be tricky. A minority of the task force dissented, arguing that a transfer would not be economically feasible based on the gathered evidence, and that it would be unconstitutional. This year, a resolution to continue the task force and charge it with looking further into how to take title of public lands, was tabled.

Montana: In 2013, the legislature commissioned an interim study on land management problems, one of which was dissatisfaction with the federal government, to be done by a council of legislators. The council’s report recommends better collaboration with local agencies and managers. This year, Rep. White’s bill, which asks for $35,000 to form a task force to focus a study on federal management problems, has passed the House and awaits the Senate vote.

Nevada: A $66,241 feasibility study taken on by county commissioners in 2013 found that a transfer could be very profitable for the state—in some scenarios, earning the state more than $200 million annually. However, an investigative report by Nevada television news station 8 News Now found their study to be politically biased.

New Mexico: This year, three study initiatives were killed in the legislature.

Oregon: Republican Rep. Wilson’s HB 3240 is on the table this year. The bill asks for the creation of a task force of legislators to gather testimonial research on the feasibility of a transfer. Its cost is unspecified.

Utah: In 2012, Utah passed Ivory’s study bill attached to the Transfer of Public Lands Act. It commissioned the nearly-800-page, $550,000 study by economist Stambro and her colleagues. Last year, Utah legislators established the Commission for Stewardship of Public Lands and funded it with $2 million to build a legal case and public relations campaign for a transfer.

Washington: Two transfer bills were killed this spring.

Wyoming: An $18,000 task force of legislators formed in 2013 gathered testimonial evidence on two occasions before recommending the state move forward with a transfer. The task force did not offer a formal report to support their conclusion. In March, Senate File 56 passed, which will give the Office of State Lands $100,000 $75,000 to identify which federal lands could be transferred. 

Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern at High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.