If the standoff between Cliven Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has had any positive effect at all, it lies in the fact that nine Western states are now seeking to gain control of federal lands within their state borders.
More than 50 state legislators and county commissioners gathered Friday in Salt Lake City, Utah to discuss taking back control or ownership of federally owned land within their respective states. The meeting, called the Legislative Summit on the Transfer of Public Lands, was organized by Utah state Representative Ken Ivory (R), and Montana state Senator Jennifer Fielder (R). During a press conference after the daylong meeting, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart (R) was joined by others from Idaho and Montana as she declared, “What’s happened in Nevada is really just a symptom of a much larger problem.”
Although this has been planned since before the events of the past week, what happened at the Bundy ranch in Nevada appears to have hastened the summit meeting, as indicated by Representative Ivory’s comment, “It’s simply time. The urgency is now.”
Just a cursory glance at the following U.S. Bureau of Land Management map leaves one amazed at the amount of Western land the federal government owns:
The vast majority of Arizona, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada consist of land owned by the federal government. Especially Nevada and Utah. Alaska, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, California, and New Mexico also have sizeable portions of their land under federal ownership. Also, you can see the great disparity between how much of the Western states belongs to the feds compared to relatively small portions of the Eastern and Midwestern states. So why is federal land ownership concentrated mainly in the Western states?
Distilling it down to as simple an answer as possible, when the United States became a nation, the prevailing thought in the newly formed federal government was that land should be in the hands of states or citizens. This, coupled with the fact that the Eastern states were admitted to the union, for the most part, decades before the Western territories petitioned for statehood, is partially why there is so little federal ownership of land in the Eastern and Midwestern states. The reason for this is that as the 19th Century wore on, the United States owned large territories in the West, and as the newer Western states were admitted to the Union, conservation of natural resources, particularly timber, was starting to become a national priority. The federal government wanted to preserve large tracts of land, and this led to the first national forests being established in the 1890s, which is just about the time Utah, for example, became a state.
Furthermore, Representative Ivory and others say that the United States reneged on Congressional promises dating back to the 1800s, because federal control of millions of acres of land was only meant to be temporary, and that these pledges were written into contractual obligations in the founding documents of many of these states. While the U.S. government has honored its obligations to some states, it hasn’t for others. The statehood contracts, or “enabling acts” for the transfer of public lands to the newly created states were essentially the same for most of the Midwestern and Western states, but there are glaring differences in the way some of these enabling acts were followed through on by the U.S. government once statehood was granted.
Let’s look at four states for comparison:
Nevada: Enabling Act 1864, admission to statehood 1864, was 86% federally controlled in 1896, and 81% federally controlled now. (Some figures say 84% now)
Utah: Enabling Act, 1864, admission to statehood 1896, was 86% federally controlled in 1896, and 67% federally controlled now.
Nebraska: Enabling Act, 1864, admission to statehood 1867, was 22% federally controlled in 1896, but only 1% is under the fed’s control now.
North Dakota: Enabling Act, 1889, admitted to statehood 1889, was 49% federally controlled in 1896, but only 3% belongs to the feds now.
The Western states, in my opinion, have a legitimate complaint against the federal government. Montana, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington are in various stages of initiating legal proceedings to regain ownership of their lands, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. And just as an aside, they’re not interested in taking over national parks, only the majority of land in their states that is currently under federal ownership and is currently not being put to any productive use. For example, Cliven Bundy has a cattle business that makes money, brings revenue to both Clark County and Nevada, and neither he nor his fellow ranchers need or want the headaches they’ve had trying to deal with a federal bureaucracy run amok, much less armed agents showing up on their doorstep over where some cattle are grazing or whether the cattle are putting a desert tortoise at risk of extinction. Desert tortoises don’t feed people, folks. Cattle do. Just so we keep our priorities straight…
Oh, and one small thing I almost forgot to mention – much of this land is rich in oil, timber, and minerals. But the key word here is oil, which is why I think these states will be fighting one hell of an uphill battle. The Obama Administration seems to be dead set against any exploration or drilling for oil within this country, as can be seen with his continual stonewalling and delaying tactics with the Keystone pipeline.
Yes, it’s going to be a tough battle for the Western states, but one I think is worth fighting. If they succeed, it will be a good start toward dismantling the vise-like grip the federal government has on many aspects of American life.