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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...