• Marc Johnson

Old Debate, Same Outcome


The Idaho Legislature has devoted considerable time and money over the last few months to an analysis of how the state might take over the public lands in Idaho that have been owned since statehood (and before) by all of us – meaning all American citizens – and managed by the federal government.

Never mind that the effort would likely be declared unconstitutional or that the U.S. Congress would never permit such a wholesale transfer, the movement has once again gained some modest traction in the American West. This latest effort will doubtless fade, as earlier ones have time and again, when the reality of managing the land collides with the fear of having to sell much of it in order for a state to afford ownership.

As the Washington Post has reported Utah has been the most aggressive in pushing a state takeover. Utah’s governor signed legislation in 2012 demanding the federal government transfer title even though the state’s legislative counsel opined that the move had a very “high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”

Just because a federal land transfer is a fool’s errand doesn’t mean this is a new issue. Far from it. Some of us will remember the Nevada roots of the a similar effort in the 1980’s, dubbed “the Sagebrush Rebellion” when local officials in the Silver State worked themselves into high dudgeon over federal management of public lands. The movement rose like a rocket and eventually sank like a stone, but not before it had a full political run at the county and state levels all across the West.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he promised to reflect the “values and goals” of the Sagebrush Rebellion, but the former California governor must have know, even if his inept Interior Secretary James Watt didn’t, there was no public appetite for selling off the public’s land or for allowing it to be exploited by a rape, ruin and run crowd of exploiters. Quite to the contrary, the public wanted in the 1980’s – and still wants today – a conservation and economic development balance that demonstrates respect for policies that both conserve and carefully utilize the public lands.

An internal 1980 Interior Department analysis of the Sagebrush Rebellion – “A Old Issue With A New Name” – pointed out that agitation over control, ownership and management of Western public land is as old as the nation itself. In other words, the political winds have blown back and forth on these issues, but always the policy course has tacked in the direction of maintaining the public’s land for the public’s benefit.

I want to quote from that 33 year old Interior analysis, because it still seems so relevant to the debate today in Idaho, Utah and elsewhere:

• In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.

• In 1930 the Hoover Administration proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both an eastern Congressional majority and by Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for, as was said, the “waste lands” remaining.

• In the 1940’s Nevada Senator Pat McCarran conducted a series of “investigations” into the Grazing Service (one of Bureau of Land Management’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under greater control on public land. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. The BLM was formed the same year.

• In 1956 Senator Russell Long of Louisiana proposed similar legislation.

None of the legislation went anywhere, but the political heat generated was substantial in every case.

The 1980 Interior document goes on to pin the genesis of the 80’s Sagebrush Rebellion on what it termed “the pinch of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the final comprehensive articulation of national policy on how the remaining unreserved lands would be managed. FLPMA, years in the making, reflected the public realization of the enormous national values held in trust in the public lands and called for those resources and values to be managed for all Americans under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield and on the basis of sound land planning.

“Stated simply, it became clear that consideration of all possible users made the sphere of influence of certain users, heretofore unchallenged, suddenly shrink.”

It has been argued by various advocates of state control over the West’s vast public lands that the states could manage the land more efficiently. The 1980 Interior analysis asked and answered a more important question.

“Fundamentally, the question isn’t whether the States can afford to manage the public lands. They could. They could increase taxes and sell some of the land, and in the case of the energy States bet against future revenues. That’s not the right question. The question is whether the Nation’s interests are best served by such management, and the answer is no.”

Some useful information has been generated by Idaho’s current effort, including a new Congressional Research Service report that estimates, on the conservative side, that the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service spend upwards of $320 million annually managing your public lands in the state. The Idaho Department of Lands entire budget, including federal funds that the department administers, is something less than $20 million. The math, to say the least, doesn’t compute.

The Tea Party-type groups that have to a significant degree been driving the current debate must believe the transfer of lands issue is a political winner, but they may want to check that assumption. Before he was governor of Idaho, Butch Otter was the congressman who briefly advocated selling some public land in the West to offset Hurricane Katrina expenses. The future governor wisely backed off the idea when the political downside, including a potential loss of prized Idaho hunting ground, became a real liability.

From time-to-time and for far into the future we will hear of “a new Sagebrush Rebellion” sparked by some alleged misdeed by a federal agency or federal policy, yet the overall course of federal-state relations in the West is set and has been for a long, long time. Serving the broad public interest will no doubt remain the essential objective of public lands policy in the American West.

The land legislators talk about as “federal” is really “public” land, and one of the beauties of America unlike most of Europe, for example, is that the land really is owned by all of us. Even better for we westerners, American taxpayers in states with little or no public land – think Nebraska, Kansas or Iowa – subsidize the management of our public land, but we need to remember that those folks also share ownership.

We’ll continue to fight over public land management, that is the western way, but rather than continuing to argue over a land transfer that will never happen we might be better served to more constructively debate the details of land management policy, including fire, grazing, timber and mining policy, so that our kids and grand kids can be certain to benefit from the great legacy – the trust – that is embodied in the singularly American idea that all that precious land belongs to all of us.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson