Federal land transfers could be one of the single largest threats of this century to outdoor recreation and conservation. Is the potential new president capable of maintaining federal control of our lands and therefore maintaining and promoting our conservation and recreation models?
The Federal Government owns approximately 28% of the 2.27 billion acres that comprise the United States. The quickly escalating federal land transfer debate is surely a topic the next US President will find themselves in the middle of throughout their term. The number one cause for concern with the transfer of federally owned lands is the potential for privatization.
Historically, state governments have sold far more lands than they have maintained for public access. Nevada for instance was given 2,000,000 acres from the Federal Government which they sold 99% of. Utah was given 7,000,000 acres and currently they have just over 3,000,000 left. The true motivation behind federal land transfers is to ultimately sell the land or its resources for monetary gain and private interests.
This is not a new debate by any means. State and private interests have tried multiple times throughout the last 100 years to gain control of these lands through judicial process with little success. This leaves one other option which is to try and achieve federal land transfers legislatively and the reason why each citizen, east coast or west, needs to educate themselves on the issue. Ultimately it is the voice of the public which could turn over the ownership of these public lands.
Traditionally the federal land transfer debate is a much larger issue in the western states. Some western states have as much as 74% federal ownership whereas many eastern states have as little as 4%. Essentially every form of outdoor recreation has the potential to be impacted by federal land transfers. Regardless of geographic region, the federal land transfer debate is something no person who enjoys any type of outdoor recreation can afford not to be involved in.
So what is the current state of our federal lands?
Currently, the millions of acres of federally owned lands are uniformly open to the public. Hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, birding, kayaking and many other forms of outdoor recreation are allowed. Residents and non-residents alike pay equal fees and are afforded equal opportunities for access.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USFS (United States Forest Service) lands are currently also open to grazing leases as well as permits that allow for the sustainable harvest of certain resources such as timber and various minerals. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 specifically allows use of ‘public lands’ for grazing purposes. The act allows for the sustainable use of these lands for private interest while giving 62%-100% of receipts directly to states and towards range betterment projects with public benefit in mind.
Currently, nearly 90 percent of federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and 69 percent managed by the Forest Service are leased for livestock grazing. Overgrazing is a major threat to a whole suite of species. Columbian sharptail grouse, mountain plover, prairie chickens, ground squirrels and prairie dogs are just a few species significantly affected by overgrazing.
Riparian habitats on public lands have suffered some of the most devastating amounts of degradation due almost exclusively to grazing and raising livestock. Studies show up to 80% of all birds utilize riparian habitat and over 75 species of western land birds are completely dependent upon riparian habitats as integral components of their life-cycle.
What does the future hold for federal land transfers?
With numerous failed judicial attempts at transferring federal lands to local (state) or even private control, we can expect to see legislative plea bargains to transfer federal lands. A ‘foot in the door’ mentality is one of the last remaining options for land transfer activists. One of the most recent attempts being introduced in Utah is by long time federal lands transfer activist Rob Bishop. Bishop’s master plan is one of a ‘quid pro quo’ type of collaborative land management policy. Wilderness, he wrote, “can act as currency”.
The recent armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge has brought new increased attention to the federal land transfer debate. Media coverage, specifically social media, has the ability to create a global viewpoint based purely on headlines. Devoid of facts, these media massings have the ability to draw astronomical numbers of voices into any debate.
While the takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge was orchestrated and executed in poor fashion with negative results toward the end goal, the takeover proved to draw massive amounts of media coverage. In modern America, social media crowds have been known to influence government policy, local economies, as well as wildlife and conservation management policies when a topic goes “viral”.
As demands for resources increase and media attention builds, the next few years will be critical to the future of federal lands.
What effect could your presidential vote have on federal lands?
With legislative action being the only remaining option for activists, the executive power of the president could potentially be the last line of defense in protecting federal land ownership status.
Where do the candidates stand?
The current Republican front-runner Donald Trump stands by the Federal Government maintaining ownership of federal lands, a very non-conforming response compared to traditional republican views. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio however did not disappoint with classic responses in favor of federal land transfers to state ownership, saying they would “give the land back to the people”. As previously stated the current status of federal lands is that it does belong to the people. After all, isn’t the Government ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’?
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has spoken out against federal land transfers and mentioned vigorous plans to boost rural economies but failed to describe such plans. Bernie Sanders also took a stance against Federal land transfers saying “public lands should stay public”.
As time progresses the land transfer debate will only get bigger. Each citizen’s stance on the future of federal lands will be the deciding factor in the future of where ownership ultimately ends up. On one hand lies the possibility of privatization and loss of public access and resources, and on the other hand the promise of better local management and possible economic stimulation to certain areas of rural America.
While the Federal land transfers debate seems to be climaxing with activists taking the issue to extremes of armed takeovers, an ultimate decision in the debate is imminent. Educating yourself on the topic is critical. While western states hold the majority of the federal lands, the decision whether to keep them federally owned (public) will affect every American’s right east coast or west, to enjoy what makes America great.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “..the rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given its first consideration. Until that time, in dealing with the National Forests, and the public lands generally, private rights had almost uniformly been allowed to overbalance public rights. The change we made was right, and was vitally necessary; but, of course, it created bitter opposition from private interests.”