Federal public land transfers get a Congressional boost

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and a majority of her colleagues signal support for the pro-transfer movement.

 

Over the last few years, a movement in Western states to "take back" federal lands has been gaining funding and followers. As we reported last October, eight states have considered the idea of late, but none so seriously as Utah. In 2012, Utah passed a law demanding 20 million acres of federal land, and the legislature has since allocated taxpayer money to studying the issue and devising a winning legal strategy. But even as excitement spread among some right-wing county commissions and state legislatures, most lawyers and observers agreed: There was no winning legal strategy. The federal government is under no obligation to transfer public lands over to the states. 

But there might be another way to achieve the same goal: Go through Congress, instead of the courts. 

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, supporting the idea of selling, transferring or trading federal lands to the states. The measure is purely symbolic. It doesn't cover any specific parcels or give Congress any kind of new authority to chuck federal holdings. Proposals still have to make it past the House, Senate and the White House to go through. But the amendment is a "signal" that considering such bills is a priority of the Congress, says Robert Dillon, communications director for Murkowski's energy committee. 

Jessica Goad, a policy advocate at the Center for Western Priorities, which opposes the state land-transfer movement, believes Murkowski was "testing the waters" with the amendment, attempting to gauge how her colleagues might vote on land transfer bills in the future. Such bills are likely in the pipeline. E&E Daily reported earlier this month that Michael Swenson, a D.C.-based lobbyist for the American Lands Council, the Utah-based group leading the states' movement, is educating "lawmakers on the benefits of relinquishing federal lands to the states." Swenson told E&E that he "expects federal legislation to be introduced by fall."

Uintah Basin oil and gas
Oil and gas development in Utah's Uintah Basin takes place mostly on federal land. Photo courtesy WildEarth Guardians.
Sportsmen's groups have been particularly vocal about their opposition to the land-transfer movement, believing that in the hands of the states, which lack the financial resources to manage them, lands would be developed and privatized, resulting in a loss of access. Whit Fosburgh, head of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, called the Murkowski amendment "a finger in the eye to sportsmen everywhere." In an email statement to High Country News, Fosburgh said: "It was not clear to us why the amendment was necessary, and its language was sufficiently broad to be worrisome about its potential implications for the future. Senator Murkowski may not have intended to suggest that millions of acres of public land be put on the market, but the unfortunately broad language of the amendment implies that."

On the Senate floor, however, Murkowski was unambiguous about why she believed the amendment was necessary: It is too difficult to drill, mine and otherwise develop energy on federal land. It's true that it is much easier to develop certain state lands. "Trust" lands, for instance, are explicitly intended for development and to make money for the states; they have no real conservation mandate, and are subject to few environmental regulations. Whether that's a good thing, of course, is a matter of opinion. It's also true that the shale booms have largely taken place on private land, but that's a function of geology more than regulation. North Dakota, for instance, has very little federal land.

It is not the case that federal lands are broadly hands-off for the energy industry.  For proof, visit, well, Utah. Or, consider that onshore oil sales from federal lands increased from 96 million barrels in 2003 to 133 million barrels in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Curious how your Senator voted on Murkowski's amendment? It was almost a straight party-line vote, with only three Republicans coming out against it. Cory Gardner of Colorado was the lone Western Republican to vote no, joining all of the Western Democrats. 

Cally Carswell is a High Country News contributing editor and is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations to value, conserve, enhance, manage, and protect...
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • NORTH TUCSON FOOTHILLS
    11.63 acres of lush desert foothills on Tucson's near north side, secluded, secure, no HOA. 10 minute walk to Waldorf and Montessori schools, regional bike...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.