The Tug of War over Public Lands

May 11th, 2017:

Pick up any hunting, fishing or outdoors magazine this month and you will most likely find one common article; the potential transfer of federal lands to the states.  It's very easy to flip right past these articles especially when they go deep into politics and you have turkey hunting and fishing on the brain.  I have to admit I flipped past several of these articles and I actually LOVE researching and debating politics.  However, when my third magazine arrived with another article begging for people to take note of public lands I decided to dig in.  Luckily for you, I love research, so here is my best effort to simplify the issue:

What are Federal Lands?
Since the founding of our country, the United States Federal Government has acquired land through treaties like the Louisiana Purchase, the Oregon Compromise and the treaties stemming from the Mexican War.  Early on congress was given the power to manage and even transfer these lands.  Which they have done in great numbers; 1.29 billion acres from 1781-2015 primarily to encourage settlement and development in the western states.  Today the federal government still owns approximately 640 million acres of land, accounting for 28% of the 2.27 billion acres that make up the United States. (Congressional Research Service)

In fact, the United States government owns more land than the total combined land masses of the United Kingdom (60 million acres), Ireland (20 million acres), France (159 million acres), Spain (125 million acres) and Germany (88 million acres).

Why The Concern Now?
If the federal government has been transferring federal lands all along why is there such an uproar now?  Every time that a new president is elected and begins selecting their cabinet a certain amount of fear arises, and with good reason.  28% of our lands are controlled, primarily, by four federal entities.  These organizations are; Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Parks Service (NPS) and the Forest Service (FS).  As control of these organizations is given through cabinet appointments the average citizen feels they have little say in the management of each department.

Compounding the current fear are recent actions taken by individual states and their representatives to transfer federal lands to state control.  Most notably is H.R. 621 "The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act" drafted and submitted by Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz on January 24th of this year.  This bill attempted to transfer control 3 million acres of federal lands to 10 different states.  The backlash from outdoors enthusiasts was so swift and overwhelming that by February 1st Congressman Chaffetz announced that he would be pulling the bill in response to his constituents concerns.

The Damage?
Why should we care if states receive control of federal lands?  States with struggling budgets may not be able to fund the management of these lands which may lead to; increased taxes, pay for access programs (like Washington State's Discover Pass), or the outright sale of the land.  A recent study conducted by the Utah Bureau of Economics found that maintaining all federal lands within Utah, if transferred, would cost the state $280 million annually.  Without any federal assistance. 

States are notorious for selling off lands to balance their budgets.  A google search of state lands for sale pulls up a plethora of auctions currently available, for example, Alaska State mineral auctions and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation auctions in Montana.  In fact, proudly states that "The Department of State Lands (DSL) has an ACTIVE program for land sales and exchanges," [emphasis mine].  Including but not limited to the current auction of 82,500 acres in the Elliott State Forest to benefit Oregon Public Schools.  Balancing the state's budgets by selling off the land until no public lands are left.

Get Involved!
The western United States are currently a haven for hunters, fishers, and outdoor enthusiasts.  With federal lands giving access to hundreds of millions of recreational acres.  These vast expanses of land also protect the roaming animals that are most threatened by encroachment like mule deer, bison, antelope, sage grouse, bighorn sheep and many others.

If you love getting out on federal lands it is imperative that you contact all of your representatives and senators today.  Call or send a letter, also, join up with any of the hundreds of outdoor organizations currently fighting to keep federal lands available to the public permanently.  If we don't fight to keep our access then our future generations may only have limited access to outdoor activities through things like high-cost hunting leases or private ownership.