The folly of “taking back” the West

 

Do 700 million acres of national parks, national monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management units belong to you and your fellow Americans? No, according to the increasingly popular notion in the West that it's time for states to "take back" federal land.

"Taking back" property that belongs to Alaskans and Floridians and everyone in between is even a plank in the GOP platform. A resolution, entitled "In Support of Western States Taking Back Public Lands" reads: "The Republican National Committee calls upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the imminent transfer of public lands to all willing Western states."

Taking back something that never belonged to you presents multiple problems, not the least of which is semantics. But this has never discouraged proponents whose first order of business is to ignore constitutional law.

Here's a fact they don't want you to know: As a condition for entering the union, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Nevada disclaimed all legal right and title to unappropriated public lands.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, site of many debates over public land use.

Nevertheless, in 2015 state lawmakers in the West introduced 37 grossly unconstitutional bills promoting seizure of lands belonging to all Americans. Utah's Legislature has gone so far as to appropriate $2 million supposedly to oversee the land grab. And a commission of Utah legislators has voted to spend $14 million suing the federal government for control of public lands.

The bills and litigation can't possibly succeed, but that's not their intent. They're designed as messages to the U.S. Congress. That's where the danger lies.

The messages are getting through. Last February Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., introduced the "Federal Land Freedom Act of 2015," which would transfer to the states management of energy production on millions of U.S. acres.

In March the House and Senate passed a joint nonbinding resolution to help states seize and sell America's public lands. The same month Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., introduced a bill that would authorize his state to sell your land.

Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced legislation in 2014 that would have prohibited the federal government from owning more than half the land within one state.

On the stump in Nevada last June, presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., drew thunderous applause when he declared: "I'd either sell or turn over all the land management to the states."

Leading the ovation, and granted a private audience by Paul, was take-back-the-West folk hero Cliven Bundy, who has intentionally trespassed his cattle on BLM range for more than two decades, amassing $1 million in unpaid grazing fees (almost four times more than the 16,000 other BLM grazing leasers combined). In March 2014, when BLM agents finally mustered the resolve to impound Bundy's cattle, he summoned a 300-man "militia" that ran them off at gunpoint. They then returned the cattle. Neither Bundy nor his militia has been prosecuted.

The Department of Homeland Security had it right when it warned that Bundy's "perceived success likely will embolden other militia extremists." Jerad and Amanda Miller attended Bundy's felonious standoff and spewed support for his cause on Facebook and YouTube (getting "likes" from the National Rifle Association, Rand Paul and Ron Paul). Three months later the couple shot to death two cops and a civilian in Las Vegas. Then, on Jan. 2, 2016, an armed militia, led by Bundy's sons Ammon, Ryan and Mel, broke into and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Building in Oregon, vowing to kill anyone who jailed two arsonists convicted of purposely setting fire to BLM land where they'd poached deer.

Anyone who wonders what Western states would do with U.S. land should consider what they've already done with it. In exchange for relinquishing all claims on public property new states were awarded "trust lands." Trust lands have generally been used to create revenue via oil and gas extraction, logging, mining and outright sale.

For example, of Nevada's original 2.7 million acres of trust land only 3,000 acres remain. In Colorado you can fish and camp on virtually all federal land and hunt on most. But you can't hunt, fish or camp on most state land because it's reserved for extractive industry.

The attempted heist of your land in the West is about one thing only -- private profiteering. If it succeeds, it will mean no-trespassing signs and death to much of your fish and wildlife.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He serves as conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...