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The Fight for Federal Lands

“What I stand for, is what I stand on.”  – Wendell Berry

The Fight for Federal Lands

In 2016, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a Tea Party Republican and self-proclaimed outdoorsman, introduced House Bill 621, otherwise known as the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017 (emphasis mine).

…directs the Department of the Interior: (1) to offer for disposal by competitive sale for not less that fair market value certain federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, previously identified in the report submitted to Congress on May 27, 1997, pursuant to the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, as suitable for disposal or exchange for the purpose of conducting restoration activities in the Everglades region of Florida; and (2) within four years after enactment of this bill, to submit a list of such lands that have not been sold and the reasons why.

All net proceeds from the sale of such lands shall be deposited into the Treasury for reduction of the public debt.

There was strong opposition from voters when the bill was put forward and, under pressure from voters, Chaffetz withdrew the bill in February.

Unfortunately, the drama over HB 621 last year was not the end of the story but more likely the opening battle in what is quickly becoming one of the biggest conservation fights in recent memory. While HB 621 sought to sell federal lands off to the highest bidder, what scares people even more is the possibility that a Republican-controlled government will begin transferring federal land to states. ‘Federal land transfer’ is one of those issues that perfectly illustrate the realities of modern politics in the United States. The strange intersection of conservationists, environmentalists, outdoor recreationists and business interests has set the stage for a fascinating drama to unfold.

Simply put, federal land transfer is the practice of the federal government transferring ownership of public lands to the states in which they exist. The reasons why this idea is popular with certain crowds requires further explanation, but before doing so, it’s important to understand the public land system as a whole…

The United States holds roughly 640 million acres of public land in trust for its citizens. This land includes national forests, national parks, landmarks, wilderness and recreation areas and many thousands of acres that are rarely visited by Americans, yet it all belongs to us. And that is an important point to make: The American system of public land was set up intentionally to be radically different from the European system where land was owned by nobility. In the United States, public land is owned by We the People. The government only acts as a caretaker and this unique fact is the reason why some groups are so concerned about recent trends.

A line often quoted from the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act  of 1872 is, “…for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” What this means is that there exists a federal mandate, which requires that public lands be maintained for the public to use. States have very different motivations. In most cases, their state constitutions require them to maximize the profitability of public lands. Additionally, balanced budget amendments mean that they can’t borrow money for upkeep on public lands. So, for example, when forest fires burn through thousands of acres, states have to deal with the costs.

But Idaho Gov. Butch Otter isn’t among the supporters. He often cites the 2015 fire season as an example of how difficult it would be for the state to pay for management of Idaho’s 33 million acres of federal land.

Wildfires that year burned 740,000 acres in Idaho – a land mass larger than Rhode Island. Firefighting costs topped $300 million. The federal government picked up 70 percent of cost, with the state shouldering the rest.

“When you have a bad fire season, the bill on the federal lands gets into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary. “If the feds weren’t there to pay for it…you’d blow a huge hole in the state budget.”

Federal land transfer has been largely a Republican idea, but this seems to contradict the idea of fiscal conservatism. If states would take on a huge financial burden by taking ownership, why do certain politicians believe this is a good idea? There are two primary reasons, one of which is publicly acknowledged and another that involves some assumptions. Republicans who support federal land transfer acknowledge that it would increase the tax base for states. In Idaho, for example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns 60% of the land in the state. That land cannot be taxed so therefore Idaho loses a great deal of potential revenue. If that land was transferred to state control, that represents a potential boost to their economy. Via the Washington Post:

Many Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have been pushing to hand over large areas of federal land to state and local authorities, on the grounds that they will be more responsive to the concerns of local residents.

House Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman Molly Block said in a statement that “in many cases federal lands create a significant burden for the surrounding communities,” because they cannot be taxed and can be “in disrepair.”

“Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues,” she added, as well as reduce the need for some federally-supported payments. “Unfortunately, current budget practices do not fully recognize these benefits, making it very difficult for non-controversial land transfers between governmental entities for public use and other reasons to happen.”

The second reason, which is a bit more nefarious, is that by transferring land, many private interests would get more access. States generally have less regulations than the feds regarding lease rights on energy extraction and this could be exploited, especially with a majority of states being controlled by Republican legislatures. An even worse scenario is that they would soon realize that they can’t afford the land and sell it off. Either way, this is bad news for the public. For those that might claim a selloff is unlikely, history says differently. 64.2 million acres of public land was given to western states when they received statehood. 25.4 million acres of this has been sold.. According to Field & Stream :

Western states have been selling their lands since they were awarded them at statehood. New Mexico has sold off 4 million of its original 13 million acres. Nevada, awarded 2.7 million acres at statehood, has 3000 acres left. Montana has sold 800,000 acres of state lands so far. Idaho has sold 1.2 million acres. Colorado has sold 1.7 million acres. Arizona has sold off 1.7 million acres.

Keep It Public explains the three worst scenarios under federal land transfer policies.

States could attempt to overcome the new expenses by managing previously accessible land with an eye toward short-term-profit, invariably leading to long-term-loss. The states would have to gut the mixed-model that the federal government currently employs, which allows for recreation access, cheap extraction leases, and low grazing fees. The lands would be viewed strictly as a taxable-revenue generator, and industry would become the primary actor on the land. While taxable-revenue is absolutely a good thing, eviscerating the mixed-model with an eye toward short-term profit would yield a long-term revenue loss due to access reduction, land degradation, negative impacts to the $646 billion outdoor recreation industry, the loss of PILTS, and harm to ranching communities.

In the final scenario, states offset their new expenses by selling public land outright, throwing away our greatest national treasure for the sake of balancing budgets that wouldn’t need balancing if it weren’t for a land-transfer.

Even if states kept their public land, the issue of access is another issue to consider. Federal land use rules are generally more liberal than at the state level. For example, hunting, fishing and camping are only allowed on about 18% of the state land in Colorado. Also where access is allowed, state rules say that it cannot interfere with ‘revenue generating activities’. There is no doubt that outdoor-loving recreationists would certainly have much less land to use if federal land transfer is successful.

Where does the new president stand on this issue? Like many things involving President Trump, it’s complicated. In an interview with Field & Stream, then-candidate Donald Trump said,

I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land.

During the campaign, outdoorsmen, especially hunters, were somewhat comforted by the fact that Trump’s son, Donald Jr., is also an avid hunter and the president’s children generally have a strong influence on him. Another positive sign in some circles was his selection of former Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Zinke, also an avid hunter, “…quit his post as a member of the GOP platform-writing committee [in 2016] after the group included language that would have transferred federal land ownership to the states”.

While his position on land transfer during the convention was admirable, according to groups like the Wilderness Society, Zinke has a mixed voting record on conservationist issues,

We have serious concerns about the nomination of Congressman Zinke, whose repeated support for logging, drilling and mining on cherished public lands is out of step with most Americans.

While he has steered clear of efforts to sell off public lands and supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund, far more often Rep. Zinke has advanced policies that favor special interests. His overall record and the backdrop of cabinet nominations with close ties to the fossil fuel industry cause us grave concern.

Of further concern was an executive order signed by President Trump in April, which directs Secretary Zinke to review national monument designation for millions of acres of land in the U.S. under the Antiquities Act of 1906. At the time of the signing, Trump stated that recent designations ,“…unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control.” This seems less-than-honest considering that national monuments can only be created on land already owned or controlled by Uncle Sam.

Zinke said that the order would cover several dozen monuments across the country designated since 1996 that total 100,000 acres or more, from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah to the Bears Ears in southeastern Utah.

He’ll provide an interim report in 45 days in which he’ll provide a recommendation on Bears Ears and a final report within 120 days.

Over the last 20 years, Zinke said, tens of millions of acres have been designated as national monuments, limiting their use for farming, timber harvesting, mining and oil and gas exploration, and other commercial uses.

Zinke said that while designations have done “a great service to the public,” the “local community affected should have a voice.”

The Wilderness Society explains the historic importance of the Antiquities Act.

…it is a well-established and popular tool that has been used by almost every president since Teddy himself wrote it to protect cultural and natural sites from wear and tear. Furthermore, local communities have opportunities to weigh in before and after every monument designation. Some senators in the hearing mentioned the recent Bears Ears and Gold Butte national monuments as designations that were locally troublesome, yet more than 70 percent of voters in both Utah and Nevada supported monument status for these sites. On a national level, 90 percent of voters support presidential proposals to protect lands as monuments, while 69 percent oppose efforts to stop this practice. Any attempt by the Trump administration to portray monuments as radical will rely on a deliberate misreading of American history and public opinion.

What’s more important to understand is that national monument status does not prevent the land from being used, even for natural resource extraction. Also from the Wilderness Society:

Most public and commercial activities continue after national monuments are established. These “existing rights” include previously-existing oil and gas leases; access to private property; valid mining claims; rights of way for roads and utility infrastructure. Additionally, the following recreational activities are almost always allowed in national monuments:

-Hunting and fishing
-Rafting and boating
-Horseback riding
-Camping, Backpacking, Hiking and Biking
-Riding motorized vehicles on designated routes

Writing for the Joplin Globe, Andy Ostmeyer reminds us what previous landmark designations have set aside:

Here’s a short list of great American places Republican presidents have saved with the Antiquities Act: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Olympic, Petrified Forest, Muir Woods, Carlsbad Caverns and part of the Virgin Islands.

Here’s a short list of places Democratic presidents have saved with the Antiquities Act: Dinosaur National Monument and Fort Laramie, Grand Teton, Death Valley, more than 50 million acres of Alaska, part of the Virgin Islands and more recently, Bears Ears.

Does anyone today regret protecting the Grand Canyon or Zion or Grand Teton?

Leading the charge in Washington is another politician from Utah, Rob Bishop, who chairs the Natural Resources committee. He has big plans for federal lands under a Republican-controlled government.

Bishop’s memo to the Budget Committee says his committee will work with the Trump administration “to identify previously declared monuments that are suitable to be rescinded or diminished in size.” He calls for the Bureau of Land Management to create a searchable database “of all lands that have been identified for disposal.” Bishop said his committee “does not support acquiring additional lands until basic responsibilities are met on the 80 million acres managed by” the National Park Service or adding to the 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Bishop notes that the park service’s deferred maintenance backlog, now nearly $12 billion, suggests misplaced “management priorities,” rather than inadequate funding.

If landmark proponents are being honest, they will admit that the designation of national landmarks is often advocated by conservationists and the outdoor community because it puts these lands out of the reach of development. The landmark designation allows presidents to circumvent Congress, thus avoiding years of debate. To date, no president has overturned a national landmark designation (though President Trump seems all too ready to be the first). Still, using the power of the federal government to pursue self-serving agendas is something that conservationists often complain about. We should be wary of our own hypocrisy when we advocate for landmark designations to get what we want. Thinking about misuse of federal power also reminds us that the Left had a hand in creating turmoil around the issue of federal lands:

Then-Interior secretary Sally Jewell issued an order in January 2016 ending new coal leases on federal land until an environmental impact statement was completed which would look at coal’s impact on climate change and “the social cost of carbon.” Bishop has called for the Trump administration to revoke the moratorium on new leases and narrow the scope of the impact statement.

Last October, I wrote about the history of liberal opposition to hunting and how their use of federal agencies to pursue their agenda turned many hunters into conservatives. With the issue of federal land transfer, we see those old mistrusts coming back. While many hunters would like for federal land to stay in government hands, they also know this comes at a price. With some hard evidence to back up their fears, they believe that environmentalists would use that federal control to continue to chip away at hunting and fishing rights. A good example of this concern is the recently-defeated Initiative 177 which would have banned trapping on public lands in Montana. A similar bill, Amendment 14, was passed by Colorado in 1998.

In these situations, the traditional roles of conservative and liberal are turned on their heads. Typically liberal-leaning preservationists (Muir model) would like to see the land frozen in place. Conservative-leaning conservationists (Roosevelt model) want to see it used responsibly. Ultimately, the difference in approach between conservationists and preservationists is a battle that has been waged for over 100 hundred years and in all honesty, this type of governmental gridlock is probably good for the environment and for wildlife.

What makes this writer happy, at a time when I want very little to do with our party system, is seeing my fellow outdoorsmen and women looking past politics and joining together to fight for public lands. Hunters are finding common cause with mountain climbers. Fishermen seeking an alliance with snowboarders. Hikers, mountain bikers, trappers and the like are all putting their political leanings aside to stand up for their rights as public land owners.

Other writers have observed that this issue seems to heat up about once every 20 years, so it’s important that we not assume our fight is the worst ever (modern Americans are indeed prone to hyperbole). Still, this may be one case where raising a loud alarm might be just what we need to do, because quite literally, our heritage is at stake. When we’re talking about public lands, we’re talking about an idea so big that we put Teddy Roosevelt on a mountain as a way to give thanks. We ranked his tireless work in preserving our lands alongside the founding of our country and the ending of slavery. That says something important about just what we value as Americans, and what we should continue to value so that we can leave something great for our grandchildren.


The fight over federal lands has always been a Western-centric struggle. One need only look at a map of federal lands (below) to see why this is so. While the federal government owns around 25% of all land in the United States, it owns roughly 60% of the land in the West. Utah’s elected officials in Washington, Bishop, Chaffetz and Senator Orin Hatch, are pushing hard for changes to policy because of this very fact.

In the East, we spend a lot more time hunting on private property, although public land is still important. Huge national forests and also state lands are part of our heritage, but it’s just… different. The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) has recently issued a call for Eastern hunters to join the fight:

That’s why hunters in our region need to be concerned about Western states gaining control of public lands. This fight isn’t a Western issue, it’s an access issue, one that impacts millions of acres that belong to all of us.

Still, the threat of public land transfer hasn’t lit a fire under Eastern sportsmen, and this makes it easier for our elected officials to support this dangerous idea. Did you know that last year the South Carolina General Assembly supported Utah’s resolution to transfer Western public lands to the state? The state legislature passed its own resolution that encourages Utah’s unprecedented steps in the wrong direction. Ten other states introduced similar measures, but Tennessee slammed the measure. With the most-visited national park in their backyard, these decision-makers understand the importance of public access to bountiful natural resources and outdoor recreation, like the Great Smoky Mountains’ unparalleled fishing. We need more states east of the Mississippi to take a stand, or Western states could seize millions of acres, bungle their management, fail to pay the bills, or worse, sell them off to private interests.

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. That’s just another barrier to entry for American families, who need the adventure and simplicity of the outdoors more than ever. During an interview with Woods and Water SC host Roger Metz, Steven Rinella recently made an appeal to east coast sportsmen to oppose public land transfer, if only because it’s bad business. He emphasized that under state ownership, everything would come second to generating revenue from these lands. That’s no benefit to the American public, who could get cut out of access they rely on for outdoor recreation.

The Fight for Federal Lands

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Mike Dwyer is a writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture and the outdoors for Ordinary Times. He is also one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky. Mike is active on Facebook and Instagram. He lives with his wife and daughters in the distant suburbs, at the place where neighborhoods give way to farms and forest.

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79 thoughts on “The Fight for Federal Lands

  1. 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.


  2. 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.


    • 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)


    • 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.


  3. 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?


  4. 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.


      • 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.


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


      • 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.


  6. 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.


      • 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.


        • 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.


        • 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.


      • 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.


          • 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.


        • 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.


          • 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.”


            • 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.


              • 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.


                • 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.


              • 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.


                • 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.


                  • 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.


                    • 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.


            • 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.


              • 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.


  7. 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.


    • 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’.


    • 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.


  8. 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.


    • 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.


      • 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.


        • 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.


        • 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.


      • 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?


        • 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.


  9. 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.}}


    • 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.


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