Protecting our Public Lands

The federal government owns 47% of the land in the West. There's pressure to lower that percentage, not just in the West, but nationwide. At one time, the federal government owned essentially 100% of all of this land.

Over time, the percentage has been whittled down through homesteading, transfer to states, and a myriad of other reasons. East of the Mississippi, only 4% of lands are owned by the feds. Why?

Well, in a nutshell, the land is better, and the typical tracts of lands offered through homesteading was sufficient for a hardworking family to make a go of it. In the West, 40 acres in some places might not be sufficient to graze one head of livestock. People still homesteaded, but they then grazed their herds across vast stretches of unclaimed government land. And of course, if you have even a passing knowledge of the history of the West, you are aware that this haphazard arrangement resulted in chaos - even small scale wars.

Settlers tried fencing off lands they did not own, or in other ways tried to kind of apply squatter's rights to the land they required to survive in the harsh environments they found themselves. Federal lands were not the only targets of their transgressions. So were lands promised to the Native tribes of the West.

Public lands in modern America must serve multiple stakeholders. Much of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands are available to be leased for grazing, mining, as well as extraction of fossil fuels like oil and gas. But, the leases come come with strings attached.

The outlaws who occupied the wildlife refuge in Oregon got their start fighting with the BLM in Nevada. It was permissible to lease the lands that they needed to graze cattle, but the leases required some hoop jumping to protect am endangered species of tortoise. For a crusty old rancher like Cliven Bundy, it's probably safe to assume that a turtle represents nothing more than a highway hazard to your tires.

Western states have joined the efforts to wrest control of public lands from the feds, yet studies have indicated that in the long run this might be a less than prudent move for them. Feds typically compensate states for the loss of tax revenue on federal lands (this fact is often left out of the debate by proponents of transfer of federal lands to states). Further, there are, or at least should be fairly significant administrative costs that states would assume when they came into possession of the federal lands. On balance, these studies show that states would incur a net loss by assuming ownership of the lands. This fact leads many to believe that ultimately, these lands will be sold off to private ownership. A 2012 study indicated that if Utah were to receive the lands it wanted from the feds, they would incur over $200 million in additional costs.

All of this together, is what starts getting the sportsmen, conservationist, and environmental movements concerned. With federal ownership, at least prior to the current regime, rules of the road were fairly well established. Sure, there were tussles over individual areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but we all pretty well understood that there was common agreement on issues like access.

As this new landscape has emerged under Trump, there is little confidence that individuals and families will continue to enjoy access to favorite hunting and fishing areas. There are concerns that hikers will lose access to the trail systems in the West and other regions. The public worries that what remains of public lands post Trump, will be a damaged and reduced version of what existed when he took office.

So, what to do? It may seem fruitless, but direct contact from constituents to legislators and other elected leaders is imperative. Citizens must let both state and federal leaders know that we do not want federal lands transferred to state or private ownership. If you are like me, you wake up many days and wonder how did we get to where we are?

I guess it is pretty straight forward. Normal and sensible citizens have not adequately participated in our democracy. Let us all make certain that we make our voices heard that we will not accept radical changes to this nation's great and unparalleled public lands that we all own together!

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