Idaho Politics by William L. Spence: When it comes to Western federal lands, history repeats

WILLIAM L. SPENCE, politics reporter,Lewiston TribuneAugust 27, 2013 

William L. Spence

It was 44 years ago this summer when my parents purchased our first color television.

The occasion was the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. We’d gotten a black-and-white set when the lunar missions began, but this first manned moon landing deserved better. It was truly history in the making, so we would watch it through the Technicolor prism of America’s latest entertainment technology.

I don’t know if that boyhood experience influenced my later views, but I’ve always associated history with color. Learning the background of an issue or idea doesn’t just add context to today’s events — it affects their appearance and adds vibrancy.

That’s why I appreciated Deputy state Attorney General Steve Strack’s presentation to the Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee on Aug. 9 at the Capitol in Boise.

The committee is tasked with evaluating how Idaho can acquire ownership and control of the federal public lands within its borders. It’s supposed to issue a progress report next year, with a final report and recommendation due by January 2015.


Strack provided an hourlong historical overview highlighting the numerous attempts by Congress and the states to deal with this issue.

What’s remarkable, he said, is how similar the arguments have been over time.

In the 1820s, for example, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and other “Western” states complained that federal land ownership was hindering settlement and economic development within their borders.

At the time, the federal government controlled upwards of 90 percent of the land in some of these states. Much of it had been ceded to the government by the original 13 states during the American Revolution to be used for the public benefit and to pay down the federal debt.

The Western states wanted the government to dispose of the land, either by giving it to them or by selling it cheaply to private individuals.


“The Eastern states opposed that,” Strack said. “They said federal lands are a common fund that belong to all the states, so the benefit of those lands should flow to all the states — not just to the states where the lands are found.”

A compromise was eventually reached in 1841, he said. The federal government agreed to give each of the public land states 500,000 acres, with the remaining land to be sold. Proceeds from the sale would be divided among all the states based on population, meaning the Eastern states would get most of the money.

“It took about 15 years of debate before there was the first compromise,” Strack noted.

That compromise is why federal land ownership in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri now ranges from 1 percent to 3 percent, compared with 61 percent in Idaho and anywhere from 27 percent to 80 percent in the other Western states.

The next major push came in 1891, when Western states urged Congress to hand over title to the public lands so they could be reclaimed.

Given that the states already owned the water rights, Strack said, they felt they could do a better job of reclamation if they owned the land as well. That led directly to the Carey Act of 1894, which authorized the transfer of up to 1 million acres of public lands to each state to help spur development of large-scale irrigation projects.

“This was an example of a successful effort by the states to acquire title to at least some public lands,” Strack said. “And Idaho was where the Carey Act worked best. It was eventually authorized to transfer up to 3 million acres. The land initially went to the State Land Board, which then transferred it to private ownership.”

A decade later, when Congress was debating the Reclamation Act, there were calls to cede all public lands to the states and give them responsibility for any reclamation projects.


“It was essentially a supercharged Carey Act,” Strack said. However, “the states opposed that because they wanted the federal government to take the lead on reclamation. There was a vigorous debate about how the federal government could do that if these weren’t public lands.”

The states balked again in 1929, when President Herbert Hoover suggested transferring ownership of more than 230 million acres of unappropriated federal lands to the states — and again in the 1940s, when a Wyoming senator suggested ceding all public lands to the states or selling them directly to private individuals.

During the 1940s debate, Strack said, Idaho urged Congress to preserve public lands in their present form, saying the federal government was best able to “promote the conservation, development and use of these lands in the general public interest.”


“You may have noticed a pattern here,” he said. “It seems like every 30 to 40 years the issue of federal public lands comes to a head and there’s a proposal to transfer them to the states.”

The trend continued in the 1970s and 1980s with the Sagebrush Rebellion, and Utah, Idaho and other Western states are once again raising the issue today.

As he reviewed this long history, Strack said: “The lesson I took away was that where we saw progress in the past (in terms of transfer of land ownership) has been the result of congressional action. The limited litigation experience we have wasn’t successful. We know Congress does respond when the states can make a compelling argument; the Carey Act was a great example of that.”

The other lesson is that, no matter how one feels about the proposed transfer, it clearly isn’t a black-and-white issue. History lends color and insight to the debate.

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