CHEYENNE, Wyo.— Stung by a recent vote in Congress, national conservation groups are mustering opposition to the increasing call from many western states to transfer federal lands to state control.
The U.S. Senate last month narrowly approved a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that could set the stage for future legislation to sell or transfer federal lands to state or local governments.
“This amendment doesn’t sell, transfer, or exchange any piece of property,” Murkowski said in a statement last week. “It provides a general budgetary mechanism that would apply to future legislation. Any actual transfers or exchanges of land would still need to go through the regular order legislative process and be signed into law.”
Murkowski emphasized that her amendment, which passed 51-to-49 with no Democratic support, would exempt lands within national parks, national preserves or national monuments from possible transfer.
In many western states, the federal government owns the bulk of the land. Some in state governments around the West have yearned for years to bring those millions of acres under state control. They argue that western states are hamstrung compared to their eastern cousins by the relative lack of private lands for development and taxation. Last week, the Alaska House of Representatives endorsed a measure that would call on the federal government to hand over huge swaths of federal land there. State legislatures in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming have considered similar measures this year. Utah in 2012 passed a state law calling on the federal government to transfer federal lands there into state ownership.
Wyoming Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, supported a measure that passed in the Wyoming Legislature this year that puts up money for a study of how the state could administer state lands.
He said Tuesday that Wyoming lawmakers specified the state study would account for maintaining public access to the lands if they were transferred from state to federal control.
The benefit to Wyoming of getting title to the lands would be to have a more responsive, realistic approach to management, Stubson said. “A management approach where you can actually talk to real people. I think that’s the benefit that you have,” he said. “More immediate decision making, and a more responsive decision making.”
For many conservation groups, the Senate vote narrowly endorsing Murkowski’s amendment means the notion of massive transfers of federal land to the states no longer may be discounted simply as wishful thinking at the state level. Now, they say, they must count it as a serious threat.
Whit Fosburgh is president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in Washington, D.C., which works to preserve public land access for hunters and anglers. Although he said there was general consensus that the state initiatives calling on Congress to turn over federal lands were unconstitutional, he said it’s clear that Congress itself has authority to sell or transfer federal lands.
“What we’re talking about here is a whole other level of the sell-off idea, much broader and much more ambitious,” Fosburgh said.
Kate Zimmerman, public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation in Colorado, said she believes most of the conservation community is concerned about the language in the Murkowski amendment, and that fact the Senate passed it by one vote.
“The primary concern is that it sort of opens the door for consideration of the types of bills that have been floating around in the state legislatures, that demand the transfer of federal public lands to the states,” Zimmerman said.
John Horning of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is executive director of WildEarth Guardians, a group that commonly challenges federal land management agency actions in the West.
“It’s disturbing that a majority of senators think that this idea has legs, that it’s got credibility,” Horning said. “So I was disturbed, and discouraged. And it clearly demonstrates that there’s real momentum behind this movement to privatize public lands.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., spoke against Murkowski’s amendment on the Senate floor, saying it threatened citizen access to cherished hunting and fishing spots.
“I think what we’re starting to see now, is the reaction to that, where very mainstream pragmatic sportsmen groups are stepping up and saying, ‘hey, wait a minute, you’re talking about the places that I hunt and fish, and you’re only telling part of the story, and let’s have a real conversation about this. So you’re seeing a lot more push back as a result of that,” Heinrich said Tuesday.
Heinrich said western states including New Mexico and Nevada have already sold off much of their state lands and said that experience clearly points to what hunters and anglers can expect if federal lands are turned over to the states.
“Those were all places where people used to be able to go as sportsmen and access those lands, and now are behind no-trespassing signs,” he said. “That raises some real red flags for sportsmen across the West.”