Western Lawmakers Call for Return of Public Lands to States

When a Nevada rancher sparked a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing his cattle without paying fees to the federal government, it highlighted once again the longstanding debate over ownership of federal lands in the West.

Policymakers from eight Western states gathered April 18 for a legislative summit to discuss the transfer of public lands from the federal government back to the states. Some state leaders believe they are better prepared to manage the land and will do so in an economically and environmentally responsible way.

“Those of us who live in rural states know how to take care of lands,” Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder said in an article published by The Christian Science Monitor. “We need to start managing these lands. It is the right thing to do for our people, for our environment and for our economy.”

The federal government owns more land west of the Rocky Mountains than in any other region, ranging from 35 percent in New Mexico to 81 percent in Nevada.

Fielder and other legislators attending the legislative summit cited lost tax revenues from underdeveloped land, poor environmental management, forest fires and high unemployment in their states as some of the justifications for returning federally managed lands back to the states.

“It is time states in the West came of age,” said Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, according to the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. “We are every bit as capable of managing the lands within our boundaries as are the states to our east, those states east of Colorado.”

Policymakers discussed the possibility of creating a public lands interstate compact that would allow Western states to form a commission that would be tasked with jointly managing the lands. But that comes with challenges.

Approximately 40 current interstate compacts manage shared natural resources, meaning there is considerable historical and legal precedence for this type of interstate agreement. A compact would not be without significant challenges, however, if the impacted states decide to pursue a one. The primary obstacle would likely center on Congressional consent. While not all compacts necessitate consent, an agreement that returns federally controlled lands back to the states almost certainly would require Congressional signoff.

The attendees also raised questions about compact governance and financing. Specifically, they asked what typical compact governance models look like and how compact commissions are normally funded to try and gain a better understanding of how a public lands compact could operate.   

Utah has been the legislative leader in calling for the return of certain public lands back to the states.

In 2012, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the “Transfer of Public Lands Act” into law. The act, which excluded national parks and wilderness study areas, called for the federal government to return publicly held land back to state control. Other Western states are considering similar legislative strategies.

Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, who co-sponsored the meeting, said lawmakers who attended the summit will work cooperatively to form a strategic plan with the ultimate goal of compelling Congress to transfer the title of publicly held lands back to the states.

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