Controversial legislation tucked into a contentious highway-funding bill gives state and federal governments $1.4 billion to buy private property for new conservation efforts and adds even more inventory to the nation’s 635 million acre holding.
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, says this two-year funding mechanism for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is “particularly egregious” because the government doesn’t have billions of dollars needed to care for the vast holdings.
“The mandatory buying of more land under LWCF is a fiscal dereliction of duty—especially since the government can’t afford to maintain the lands it already owns,” Hastings said.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) agrees the federal government is not always a good steward of the land; especially in his state where a law was recently passed demanding Washington return to its control 30 million acres of federal lands within its borders.
“The decision in Washington is always to add—we want more land, we don’t want less,” said Bishop, chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. “We’re going to show that we can protect what needs to be protected, keep multiple-use where it needs to be, and what can be developed will be developed.”
State control would give Utah the power to develop the land’s natural resources and collect property taxes local governments depend on to pay for education.
“We’re realizing that if we’re going to have a future for our kids, we need to have control over our own destiny,” Bishop said. “When you stop us from developing jobs in manufacturing and mining our resources then you stop income taxes coming in.”
Reminiscent of the ‘Sagebrush Rebellion’
The sentiment in Utah is reminiscent of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s when Western states protested federal control over grazing rights, mining, logging and other activities on land within its borders.
However, the presidential election of Ronald Reagan quelled the range war not long after an address he gave in August 1980 in Salt Lake City, Utah: “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the ‘Sagebrush Rebellion.’ Count me in as a rebel.”
Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed the land transfer measure in March directing Washington to return 30 million acres to state control.
A similar measure passed in Arizona but was recently vetoed by Gov. Janice Brewer who cited a number of reasons including the $23 million she estimated it would cost to manage federal lands. Colorado also considered a bill to take back control of land in their state, but it died in committee.
The Obama administration doesn’t seem to be taking threats of a new range uprising seriously. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar chalked up the states’ legislative actions to political stunts.
“From my point of view it defies common sense,” Salazar told the Salt Lake Tribune on April 24. “I think it is political rhetoric you see in an election year. The fact is, Utah is a great example of where, through the use of public lands, we are creating thousands and thousands of jobs.”
The total amount of land controlled by the federal government “is not definitively known,” according to a Feb. 8, 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service examining federal ownership. The holdings roughly amount to 635-640 million acres, or 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the U.S.
The federal government controls more land in Nevada, 81 percent of the total, than in any other state. Utah comes in second, where the federal government controls 67 percent of its lands.
“We’re recognizing that this is about our future and the federal government basically has been heavy handed and arbitrary in how they deal with this,” Bishop said. “So when Sec. Salazar says it defies common sense that the state would want our land, I don’t see how wanting to actually fund our education and help our kids defies common sense, or wanting to actually have recreational opportunities defies common sense, or wanting to develop the resources base we have in our state defies common sense.”
“It’s the federal government that defies common sense, not us,” Bishop said. “Let’s face it, the other side always says if you allow states to have control of their lands they will just rape and pillage and strip mine everything. That’s silly. The idea that the states can’t protect the land is a bogus argument especially when the federal government has a proven track record of its inability to manage its property.”
In addition to the $1.4 billion to purchase land through the LWCF, the Forest Service announced in April they have dedicated $40.6 million to make 27 land purchases in 15 states this year.