Keep Our Public Lands Public

Read the rest of the article to learn why I think we should Keep Our Public Lands Public.

At this very moment there is a campaign arguing that the vast majority of all federally managed public land should be transferred to the states. At first glance, it seems like the states should be able to do a better job of managing public land than the federal government. However, things aren’t quite so simple and transferring federally managed public lands to the states could result in the general public losing access to these lands. In this article, I will discuss why I think this is a bad idea and why we should keep our public lands public.

The federal government currently manages approximately 640 million acres (1 million square miles) of land in the United States. This is over 25% of the total land area of the United States. Of this, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the United States Forest Service (USFS), the National Park Service (NPS) and the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) manage the vast majority of the land and are responsible for about 609 million acres between them. Most of the federally managed public land is concentrated in the western states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska, where the federal government controls over 50% of the total land in these states. Not surprisingly, people in these states tend to have strong feelings one way or another regarding the future of public land.

Tensions have simmered below the surface for years over disagreements between locals and the federal government on how to manage this land. These disagreements have flared up from time to time and even turned violent on occasion, such as the recent standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. When taking into account incidents like this, along with the growing amount of distrust of the federal government in some segments of the population, it is no surprise that there is a growing desire to remove these lands from federal management and have them managed by the individual states.

Nobody is denying that there are some problems with how federal lands are currently managed and there is certainly a lot of room for improvement on this front. However, I think that by transferring these lands to the states, we might be going from the frying pan into the fire.

Look, I’m no apologist for the federal government. Certain federal agencies have reputations for being very ham handed and insensitive in their dealings with individual citizens. As with any large bureaucratic organization, “one size fits none” approaches in many areas, to include managing land, seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Like I said earlier, there are clearly a lot of areas where the manner in which the federal government manages their land could be improved upon. However, lets not forget the things about the current state of affairs that work very well.

The idea of “public land” that anybody can just go out and enjoy basically for free is a concept that is foreign to people in virtually every other country in the world. Being able to go hunt, hike, camp, view wildlife, or fish in a National Forest or other piece of public land is something that I think many of us take for granted.

If we transfer these lands to the states, there is a very real possibility that the average person could lose access to millions of acres of land. Don’t believe me? Consider the following: the states are mandated to manage their state trust lands in such a manner that these lands generate the maximum revenue revenue possible for schools and other public institutions in the state. This means that logging, energy development, and the leasing of the land to private entities for the purpose of generating revenue take precedence over outdoor recreation by average citizens.

The government tried an experiment in privatization of the 89,000 acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico several years ago which illustrates some of the perils of attempting to generate revenue from former public land. As was demonstrated at Valles Caldera, if we transfer federally managed public land to the states in the future, public access to this land might still be allowed, but it would likely involve increased access fees. At the same time, since there would be so much incentive to maximize the revenue from the land, people interested in outdoor recreation on public land would likely have to deal with excessive logging, grazing, mining, and energy development. Who wants to pay extra money for that?

Oh by the way, the experiment at Valles Caldera failed miserably: even when conducting large scale logging and resource extraction, charging high fees for public access, and selling grazing rights for significantly more than the market price, the preserve was never able to generate enough revenue to cover even a third of its expenses.

There is also the possibility that the states could just sell the land outright if they face a budget crunch. Look no further than the Elliott State Forest in Oregon as an example of what could happen to federally managed public lands after they are transferred to the states. In short, the state of Oregon is being forced to sell the 80,000+ acre state forest after lawsuits and increasing management costs made logging unprofitable for the state. Since Oregon is required to manage state trust lands for maximum revenue for the school system, the state land board is choosing to sell the forest instead of continuing to operate it at a loss.

The memories of Weyerhaeuser ending free public access and charging hundreds of dollars for access permits are still fresh in the memories of Washington and Oregon residents. That was a private company deciding to start charging hunters money access for land it had owned for a very long time and it was still met with outrage. Can you imagine how you would feel if your state sold off hundreds of thousands of acres of what used to be a National Forest so that it could be logged and/or developed into condos and shopping centers?

Lets not forget that one of the primary reasons we have so much public land out west today is because conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot fought to set aside millions of acres of land for use by the public instead of giving it away or selling for pennies on the dollar to timber, mining, and railroad companies. Though it was an incredibly controversial decision at the time, we have them to thank for the vast tracts of public land we still enjoy today. Because of this, we should be even more cautious about doing anything that might squander our rich public land heritage for future generations.

Another aspect of land management that is often overlooked when talking about transferring public lands from federal control is fire suppression. As we have seen in recent years, a bad wildfire season can turn out to be extremely expensive and the federal government is much better equipped than the individual states to fight large wildfires. Just like the man in the photo below, even people who are opposed to most things the federal government does are happy when FEMA and the US Forest Service help save their home from a forest fire.

keep our public lands public fire protection

One of the most common reasons provided by advocates of the transfer of federally managed public lands to the states is the argument that federal ownership of these lands is unconstitutional. People making this argument usually cite Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution, which states that Congress shall have the power:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;

However, this argument does not take into consideration Article IV, Section 3, Clause 3 of the Constitution, also known as the Property Clause, which states:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

The first clause cited merely states that Congress has authority over the District chosen to become the seat of government of the United States (what would eventually become Washington D.C.) and would also exercise authority over all places purchased from the states with their consent. However, it does not state that all land owned by the Federal Government must be done with consent of the states.

The second clause clearly states that Congress can regulate or dispose of as it sees fit all territory and property belonging to the United States. Now I’m no lawyer, but since the Constitution clearly states that Congress can regulate or dispose of land belonging to the United States, this also means that the ownership of territory and property by the Federal Government is, by definition, Constitutional.

For a detailed breakdown of the constitutionality of the Federal Government owning public land by an actual lawyer, read this article.

Here’s another fun fact often overlooked by proponents of transferring federally managed public land to the states: as part of the process to join the United States, every state renounced any claim to the federally managed public land within the borders of the state when the state joined the Union.

Below is an excerpt from Section 4 of the Enabling Act of 1899 passed by Congress that admitted Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington into the United States.

Second. That the people inhabiting said proposed States do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof, and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indian or Indian tribes; and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States, and said Indian lands shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the Congress of the United States…

The text below is from the Ordinance Section of the Nevada Constitution, but virtually identical statements are enshrined in the state constitutions (like South Dakota’s) and/or Enabling Acts (like Utah’s) of every other state.

Third. That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States…

I don’t know about you, but those statements seem to pretty clearly assert that the states renounced any claim to all land managed by the federal government within their borders when they joined the Union.

Instead of tearing down the entire program for federal management of public lands, we would be much better served by devoting our energy towards reforming improving the current system. Like I said earlier, there are many areas where federal management of public lands could be improved. It won’t be easy, but I’m confident that if we put our minds to it, we can come up with some reforms that result in the land being managed in a manner more sensitive to the needs and desires of local residents while at the same time maintaining our rich public land heritage.

Remember: the federal government may manage these lands, but they are owned by all Americans. We are incredibly fortunate to have such a rich and bountiful heritage and it would be extremely foolish and shortsighted to give up this incredible resource. I completely understand that there are problems with the way the federal government manages public land and I’m 100% in favor of reforming those management practices. However, transferring those public lands to the states will not end well and will likely eventually result in the privatization of millions of acres of what is now public land. Hunting access is already one of the biggest obstacles for hunters to overcome and if this effort to transfer control of our public lands comes to pass, the problem will only get worse. While there are many great reasons to keep our public land public, preserving recreational access to these lands is one of the most obvious and most important to sportsmen and women. #KeepItPublic

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2 thoughts on “Keep Our Public Lands Public”

  1. Out here in the West we can take our public lands for granted. Growing up hunting in Eastern Oregon, public land to hunt on was everywhere. Now living and hunting in Colorado it seems as if there is even more places to go. Interestingly, access to some prime public hunting areas some places here in Colorado can be hard to find. There are some hunting areas that are bordered by private lands that have to be traversed to get to the public land. The landowners charge high fees, sometimes $500+ just to cross their lands. I chose not to hunt these areas as I don’t want to pay up, but if these kinds of prices are paid to access the currently free land I would hate to see how these set the market for usage fees set by the state to access these lands if they are transferred to the state. High access fees would seem like an inevitability as the cost burden passed on to the states could be crushing to many already cash-strapped states. Great article.


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