The Fight for Federal Lands

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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79 Responses

  1. Kimmi says:

    The moneyed interests want Acadia back. Perhaps it makes ideological sense to focus on the West, but the people who have enough money to throw at things are looking at their “hereditary” lands.

    Any “environmentalist” who doesn’t support hunting isn’t worth a red penny. I come from PA, where deer kill people an awful lot, and are busy stripping our forests bare. Perhaps we could stand better hunting management, but hunting itself, well-managed, is a godsend.Report

  2. Kolohe says:

    Imagine the Smokies being transferred to state agencies. Visitors from around the country and the world wouldn’t be able to access the park or the Appalachian Trail (AT) without paying an entrance fee.

    I didn’t know the GSM NP was fee free (Shenandoah isn’t). But looking it up, it’s only free *because* of a special compact with the states.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to Kolohe says:

      Fees are the least compelling point quoted; I have no problem with them and lot of national parks charge them. Rocky Mtn. NP moved its fees to $20 per day per car or $30 per week, and the park reported that a survey of visitors and local residents significantly supported the increase. The reality is that most people enjoying the parks are above median income, so its lifestyle subsidy that acts like a lot of agricultural subsidies (justified for those most in need paid to those least in need).

      (Also slight correction: GSM does not allow hunting, as I suspect most of the popular parks, but there is hunting in nearby national forests)Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kolohe says:

      I will also say that the TRCP was engaging in a bit of hyperbole there. I think there is basically zero chance any national park would be transferred to a state, especially the most visited national park in the country.Report

  3. Kolohe says:

    The flip side of this debate is that the DC municipal government (and other local activists) wants the National Park Service to turn control over several pieces of land to the DC government, because of NPS’s general neglect of the properties.Report

  4. Joe Sal says:

    Huh, is it just me or is there a lot more red to the west on that map than the east. Is this where we get to point and question the social objectivity of the feds?Report

  5. Joseph W Lloyd says:

    Well written Mike. Up here in Montana, public land is the most talked about issue in our politics. For most of us low to middle income folks, having access to places like Glacier for a weekend trip, is one of the best aspects of living here. In fact, just yesterday, I went for my first big hike of this season in the Lewis and Clark National forest. I would never support anyone who even considered transferring them to states. Keep public lands in public hands.Report

      • Colorado College does an annual survey of opinions in the Mountain West. Keeping public lands public, and having tight restrictions on mining/drilling operations, have become majority positions in most of those states. Note that the Bundy sort of groups now want land management to devolve to counties, not states — because they’ve pretty much lost at the state level, which in most of them is dominated by urban/suburban areas. Rumor here is that part of why Chaffetz pulled his bill was because he got an early look at the latest CC results for Utah.Report

    • notme in reply to Joseph W Lloyd says:

      Gee, has anyone suggestrd that places like Lewis and Clark National forest would be given up? If not this seems like a BS argument?Report

  6. George Turner says:

    All federal lands should be sold to Chinese firms to help balance the trade deficit, especially if they donate to the Clinton Foundation.Report

    • Damon in reply to George Turner says:

      Isn’t the reason why The Bundy’s are in trouble is that Harry Reid wants to get the land and sell it to the Chinese?Report

      • George Turner in reply to Damon says:

        Yes it is.

        The Bundys, one of the last examples of a vanishing way of life, had the misfortune to run right into Harry Reid’s lawless greed..

        Regarding that way of life, back in the old West a lot of the toughest codgers tried tortoise ranching, but it died out because it took years to drive the herds up to Kansas City or Chicago. On a good day they might cover a mile and a half, but most days they could only drive them about a mile because a herd has to graze. There was no use bringing skinny turtles to market. In frontier towns along the drive it was a always big week when the boys brought a herd through, and people would grab their kids out of the streets in case there was a stampede as the torts got a whiff of the salad bar at the Golden Corral and Saloon.

        A lot of people don’t realize it, but Westerners learned to say little and talk slowly so they didn’t run out of things to say during the big tortoise drives. Now that’s part of our Western culture. But then came the barbed wire fences, and the last of the free-grazing tortoise drives stopped because the tortoises didn’t give a s**t about the barbed wire, but the cowboys would have to carry their beer coolers and lawn chairs the long way round and try to catch back up to the stock, and that was just too much work for the world’s laziest f**king ranchers.

        The only ones left are the ones who run mixed herds of cattle and tortoises, like Cliven Bundy’s family. If the BLM wins, an historic and traditional American way of life will come to a final, bitter end, and this nation will close a fascinating chapter of its history.Report

  7. Oscar Gordon says:

    Neglected public lands is my concern. If the federal government is unable or unwilling to allocate the budget to properly manage the vast land holdings, then they need to let some it go.Report

    • @oscar-gordon

      Do you see states doing any better? Or would you just prefer it go to private buyers?Report

      • Some things would probably be done on a regional basis. California operates a small fleet of air tankers for fire fighting. Colorado has started setting aside money for same. The Western Governors Association — which in my experience is much more a thing than other regional associations — has seriously discussed the nuts-and-bolts of creating a regional fleet if/when Congress decides to defund the federal one. Defunding has actually been discussed by Republicans writing budget proposals.

        There are alternate sources of income. State grazing fees are much higher than federal fees. States would get the royalties for oil/gas/coal production, and their severance taxes would apply. There are reasons to believe that the market will support higher fees for timber. Water is a scarce resource and control of it is worth a lot (one of the complaints among the western political class is that the federal courts have said that federal land ownership means the feds can take as much water as they deem appropriate for their interests).

        There are alternate forms of “management”. Without so much federal money, we might have avoided total fire suppression as a policy, which has resulted in some miserably sick western forests. Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana each has more than two million acres of dead trees, with fire suppression as one of the leading culprits for that.Report

        • Could have added, some things would get more attention. There are still very large areas where the checkerboard pattern of alternating square miles between federal ownership and private ownership that was done 140 years ago exist. The feds largely don’t care. States are much more likely, IMO, to pursue things like land swaps to create much larger blocks of private and public lands that are better suited to contemporary purposes.Report

        • PD Shaw in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I’m glad Mike mentioned that there is some hyperbole in suggesting some of the most prominent national parks would be privatized. There are a lot of federal lands operated under different systems for different purposes, and I think those that are primarily used for grazing or extracting natural resources probably have the weakest needs for federal ownership. There is the “Tragedy of the Commons,” and public interests can be protected through regulation and/or conservation easements in many cases. But public lands primarily set aside for habitat preservation or due to some unique natural feature, should stay federalized, IMHO.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        A mix of both, honestly, if the feds are unwilling to allocate the budget.

        And that is the rub here, if you own property and fail to maintain it in a reasonable manner, the government can take it from you. Granted the mechanics of pulling eminent domain against the feds is a non-starter, but the idea is sound; the owner of land must be not only a good steward of the land, but also a good neighbor, and in a lot of places, the feds have dropped both balls.

        Not every where, obviously, but there are places where things are a mess & Congress doesn’t care to fix it.Report

        • Patrick in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          I’m not sure “let it lie fallow” for natural forest is an improper maintenance plan.

          It’s only when you’re allowing certain uses that maintenance becomes an issue.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to Patrick says:

            Let it fallow means leaving it alone. If you’re actively managing it for fire prevention, you are not leaving it alone.Report

          • Michael Cain in reply to Patrick says:

            It’s not. But that’s not the maintenance plan the feds followed in the West. Total fire suppression was, which is a disaster for an ecosystem that has evolved to include periodic ground fires burning off the trash and thinning the sapling population. Now we’re stuck with “let some of it burn off catastrophically”, which causes its own set of problems, and suppression continued in certain areas because we don’t want the neighboring areas (towns, wilderness areas, national parks) to go up that way. Not that it’s always possible to stop them — we lost two-thirds of Yellowstone’s forests in 1988. I moved to Denver that year and we could smell Yellowstone burning all summer.Report

        • @oscar-gordon

          I’m not saying that the federal government is perfect when it comes to land management, but at least on the land they manage near me (Hoosier National Forest and Daniel Boone National Forest) they do an excellent job. My understanding is that many of the complaints of improper maintenance are mostly being made by land transfer proponents.Report

          • The Hoosier and Daniel Boone forests combine at a bit under a million acres. Imagine if every tree in those forests had died over the last 30 years. Imagine that Congress said, “Well, yeah, but doing anything about it is too expensive.” Now double the size — that’s the two million dead-tree acres in Colorado, largely caused by a long history of poor management decisions. Wyoming is at least as bad. The last five years have been relatively wet. One of these years that won’t be true. It’s hard when someone says, “Yeah, but they didn’t screw up my state.”Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

              This (forest health & fire danger) is true to varying degrees in all the Western states. Add in stuff like Hanford, which just went on lockdown last week for an incident, or that toxic spill from an abandoned mine a while ago. Then tack on all the little things that annoy people, etc.

              And this is not a slam against the forest or park service, as most of them are doing the best they can with never enough resources.

              Congress doesn’t seem interested in spending the money to keep the Western lands they control healthy, but don’t seem to have a problem keeping land east of the Mississippi in good shape. It’s liable to make a person wonder why they bother holding onto it. It’s like they own a ’68 Charger that runs, but it’s busy rusting in the backyard, and they won’t spend the money to keep it in good shape, but they refuse to try and sell it to someone who will.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                There’s was pretty significant fire smoking out Jacksonville, FL a week or so ago.

                I don’t know if federal management in the East is any better actually, it’s just the scope and visibility are different. Like I said earlier in this thread there’s lots of compliants about NPS management of its non marquee properties in the DC area. (And complaints that NPS is more a DOT than a park & rec service). Even the marquee properties have had to partner with billionaire philanthropists for capital maintenence and upgrades.

                They had the Washington Monument closed for over a year after the earthquake in 2011 to fix it, but now have it closed again for over a year because they never fixed the elevator to working spec during that last overhaul period.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Kolohe says:

                Healthy forests have fires. The question is how often doea a forest burn & how hot & fast moving is it.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to Kolohe says:

                They had the Washington Monument closed for over a year after the earthquake in 2011 to fix it, but now have it closed again for over a year because they never fixed the elevator to working spec during that last overhaul period.

                Oscar mentioned Hanford. The DOE is now rolling past the 20th anniversary of milestones still not met there. Last year, under court pressure to name a date when the key clean-up technology would be up and running — we’re already past the point in the schedule when it was to be fully operational — they took another 20+ year slip. Maybe some of the other engineer types here have an alternate explanation, but I know only two reasons for announcing a slip like that: (1) it doesn’t work and the engineers don’t know how to fix it; or (2) it doesn’t work and finance — Congress in this case — isn’t going to provide enough money to fix it.Report

              • @oscar-gordon

                I don’t think your assessment is wrong, but I think for a lot of us on the #keepitpublic side of the debate, it feels like the feds are the least bad choice, even in the west. States don’t have the budgets to really do any better and if we sell it off, they might keep it from burning, but they might also destroy it extracting non-renewables.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                The problem with this topic is it is often treated as a dichotomy, as if the question is, do we maintain the current level of federal land holdings, or just give them all up except for a handful of really special places?

                I rarely see a discussion that looks at the feds negotiating with states regarding how much land they feel comfortable taking control of today, in 5 years, in 10, in 25? Or discussions of, these acres are sensitive and must be protected because of X, but those acres just happen to be on the books because 100 years ago they were useless, but today, they can be valuable for residential or commercial development.

                It’s naive to think any transfer of land from federal control back to the states has to be done as one massive block.Report

              • I’d be okay with a tiered turnover but what does that look like? Is it maintained for public use or can the states do as they wish? If the latter, I have a problem with it. As I pointed out in the OP, history shows that states have a terrible history of keeping the lands they are given.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                I have no idea what it looks like, but that sounds like something that can be handled by the feds talking to state & local interests (i.e. the political process). I’m sure it will vary from place to place depending on a range of variables.Report

            • @michael-cain

              I don’t know enough about the management of western lands to have an opinion on whether or not they are managing fire mitigation well, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of pushback they get from the environmentalist crowd when they try to remove dead timber.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                It’s not so much dead fall as it is undergrowth. The small woody plants like shrubs and thickets that would normally burn cool and fast. Such fires wouldn’t kill healthy trees, and wouldn’t get hot enough to sterilize the top soil.

                Although in forests that have been ravaged by insects or disease (more problems that regular burning tends to keep under control), a lot of the trees are dead, but have not fallen yet, so when fire does hit, those trees go up like gasoline candles and can fan the fire even hotter.Report

  8. Dennis Sanders says:

    As a kid, I remember seeing a map of the continental US and it showed where federal land was. As you move west into states like Colorado and Wyoming you see more and more chunks of land that are under the control of Washington. So, looking from Michigan and Minnesota where there is less land under federal control and I can understand why locals might be miffed. That said, I do see the wisdom in the federal government controlling that land for practical reasons such as states and counties don’t have the resources to manage that land. And, there is some spectacular lands that need to be protected from wanton development. A federal government can make decisions as to who can use the land for oil or farming in that can preserve federal lands for future generations.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Dennis Sanders says:

      I grew up in a place not far from Seven Rivers Hills. That whole Lincoln County War thing took place just to the north a ways.
      That was basically a re-enactment of the Mexican hacienda style of ranching, with huge ranches spanning half the county in an area with little in the way of population otherwise. The result was that the big ranchers got enough sway to where they were able to buy their own town hall, complete with public servants.
      “Maybe we shouldn’t ride into town and shoot up the place,” wasn’t a big thing on everybody’s mind whenever the hands from the neighboring ranch in competition were gathered there.
      That caused a few problems, mainly with erosion.
      Hot lead flying can erode things faster than wind and rain. Not that they have to worry too much about rain around there, but it does happen from time to time.

      But sometimes “Locals be damned” is the best you can do.
      Just sayin’.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Dennis Sanders says:

      Actually recall that most public land was land that no one wanted in the 1870s In many cases because you could not make a homestead farm work there. (Even with the liberalized terms in the later years of the homestead act as folks moved into the dry west). In particular BLM land was land that was left over when it was closed to homesteading.
      Further if you look in the past National Monuments tended not to be million acre tracts of land, rather protecting a much smaller area. For example Devils Tower is 1300 ac John Day Fossil Beds in 3 units is 13k acres, El Morro is 1278 etc. It is the million acre monuments that are the real issue here. such as the new Bears Ears and Esclante Grand Staircase and Grand Canyon Parashant.Report

  9. Slugger says:

    I live in the Pacific Northwest. It is just about the only place on Earth where an ordinary working guy can leave his house, drive an hour or two, and fish for anadromous salmonids with a reasonable chance of success. The price for this in Norway, Scotland, Iceland, Argentina, and Nova Scotia is out of reach for the ordinary citizen. Getting rid of federal ownership of land will surely lead to No Trespassing signs. I am financially pretty comfortable and would be better off if this happens, but I think this will change the culture. I realize that culture is always changing, and maybe I should embrace the coming change, but squeezing every last drop of blood out of people less well off as I seems like bad policy.Report

    • Damon in reply to Slugger says:

      Just buy the salmon from the native tribes. When I was living in the Columbia river valley, they were entitled to 50 percent of the entire salmon run (as some judge decided). Given the population states the tribes had a shedload of salmon per member. They were always willing to sell on the down low.Report

      • Slugger in reply to Damon says:

        I was not talking about eating fish. I was talking about the act of fishing. Cutting the public out of fishing won’t hurt their nutrition; the expense of recreational fishing will pay for tons of food. I am concerned about the cultural experience of going fishing which is egalitarian in the US and reserved for the elite in other places. I admit that I might be blinded by nostalgia for an age that was actually different than my golden memories.Report

        • Michael Cain in reply to Slugger says:

          No guarantees on what the species might be, but experience says that a two-hour radius from almost any major metro area in the American West puts one into challenging fishing country. Many of them will impose limits — you can’t take the fish home, or you can’t use barbed hooks — but certainly a challenge for the anglers’ skills. If you’re not picky about species, I might extend the claim to anywhere in the US except the NE urban corridor and Southern California.Report

        • Damon in reply to Slugger says:

          Nope, I don’t think you’re blinded by nostalgia. I too grew up fishing on public lands and enjoyed it. I’d like that preserved. I was just being snarky.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Damon says:

        FTR, at least with the Nez Perce tribe, it wasn’t a judge who decided this, it was a treaty. The judge applied the treaty to the situation on the ground.

        Also, so far as I know the tribe can sell its portion of the catch openly. They don’t get “the lesser of 50% of the run or the amount they need to subsist” — they get 50% of the run, period, and may do with the fishes the pull out of the river as they please. The reason why is that this is the deal the United States of America worked out with a sovereign nation in exchange for its surrender of sovereignty. Treaties are the second-highest law of the land, subordinate only to the Constitution.

        And just because Uncle Sam surely proved an untrustworthy treaty partner to these people in the past does not mean he must or should be so in the future.

        Am I wrong about something here?Report

        • Damon in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Yes, but it was the judge that ruled on the language of said treaty, which, IIRC, and it was a long time, was somewhat vague. The 50% could have been read several ways. It was my understanding that the tribe was prohibited from selling the fish, as the purpose was that it was to preserve a source of food for them, not income. I may be mistaken as this was a long time ago and I was less than 17 years old.Report

  10. Stillwater says:

    Mike: What are your thoughts on including Wise Use folks in the preservation coalition? I’ve always viewed their goals as fundamentally oppositional to more traditional conservation/envirnomental ambitions, but they manage to insinuate themselves into surprisingly many movements.

    {{I’m re-reading more carefully now, so apologies if you covered this in the OP.}}Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Stillwater says:


      Unfortunately, the Wise Use movement is lacking in the members that I trust the most (conservation-minded sportsmen’s groups) or members of the renewables industries. I’m okay with renewable resource extraction like timber and game (deer are, afterall, a renewable resource). I also like the idea of wind and solar on federal lands if it is done right. What troubles me is how many industries that extract non-renewables (coal or petroleum) are involved with Wise Use. And they typically are very skeptical of environmental science.

      So…that’s a long answer to your question but my short answer is, I’m not in favor of their inclusion under their current form.Report