When Donald Trump and son Donald Trump Jr. sat down with Field & Stream magazine in Las Vegas last month to talk about sportsmen’s issues, he challenged a new part of Western conservative Republican orthodoxy: the transfer of federal lands to the states.
“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,” Trump said. “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?”
I don’t think (federal public land is) something that should be sold. Donald Trump to Field and Stream
In the recent Boise State University Public Policy survey, 67.3 percent of Idaho Republicans responded in favor of transferring public lands from the federal government to the state. Even with the caveat that such a transfer could cost the state millions annually in taxpayer dollars, 50.8 percent of Republicans favored it.
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has laid out the strongest position on this issue among Republican candidates still left in the nominating process. Cruz won the endorsement of Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador on Wednesday.
“I think it is completely indefensible that the federal government is America’s largest landlord,” Cruz told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December.
If I am elected president, we have never had a president who is as vigorously committed to transferring as much federal land as humanly possible back to the states and back to the people. Ted Cruz to the Las Vegas Review-Journal
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio expressed a similar sentiment, saying the feds are the overseers of too much land. “Who can’t agree with that?” asked Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who has endorsed Rubio.
But Risch does not endorse transferring land to the states. “I hope nobody is standing up and promises to deliver on that,” Risch said. “The only way it gets done is with congressional action, and I know how to count votes.”
Ben Carson was the first to wade into the issue on the campaign trail when he talked to the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board in November.
“The fact that the government owns 2.4 billion acres of land is ridiculous,” Carson said. “What do they need with all that land? I would advocate returning land to the states. It’s not like they’re irresponsible people who don’t care what happens, you know. I just don’t see any benefit from the government owning this much land.”
The problems with Carson’s position, to start with: The federal government owns just 630 million acres, and the states did not own the land in the first place.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich said as a congressman that he saw the challenges in the West with laws such as the Endangered Species Act and other federal land regulations. He understands why some talk about transferring lands.
“As president, Gov. Kasich would be very open to these discussions with interested states and believes that the federal government needs to work more closely and constructively when it makes decisions about land management that impact state and local governments,” said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for his campaign.
THE ROLE OF WESTERN ISSUES
Rarely do you get clear-cut division in positions on Western issues between front-runners in a Republican primary. The general position of the party — supporting states’ rights, the 10th Amendment’s limits on federal powers and natural resource development — places its candidates in favor of energy, mining, logging and livestock ranching, typically speaking.
But how will this division affect the outcome of the race?
“I think it will have an impact with some voters, given the support for land transfer,” said Steve Shaw, a political science professor with Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. “However, in comparison with other issues, this will be relatively minor as far as presidential candidates are concerned.”
The issues play differently for Democrats, with conservationists, environmentalists, federal workers and union members as key constituencies. Bernie Sanders came out against any change on public lands during a swing through Nevada earlier this month and Hillary Clinton’s campaign weighed in against public land transfer.
But criticizing the role of the federal government in managing its vast estate in the West has been a central tenant of Republican politics since 1980, when Ronald Reagan rode to victory emphasizing his Western roots as the Sagebrush Rebellion burned across the region. Reagan took every state except Oregon from George H.W. Bush in the primary.
‘LESS TIME ON THIN ICE’
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came West early and made his play by saying he would move the Department of Interior — the Cabinet agency that controls most of the federal bureaucracies managing lands, water, minerals, wildlife and parks — out of Washington to a city in the West. Bush also wants to gives states more power, but not title to federal lands.
“Presidential candidates are humans and campaigns are reflections of their candidates. If that human has not had a lot of life experience and interaction with those geographies and those issues, they’re going to feel more like they are walking out on thin ice,” said Steve Yates, Idaho GOP chairman. “In a competitive race, you want to spend less time on thin ice and more on what you know and has been working for you.”
Democrats held a Western issues forum Feb. 13 in Reno that Sanders attended. The Clinton campaign sent New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker on her behalf. The pair took questions on public lands, Native American issues and water rights.
“Let me take the radical position that the public lands belong to the public,” the Reno Gazette-Journal quoted Sanders as saying.
John Freemuth, a fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy and a Boise State University professor, said candidates from either party could get votes in the fall if they present solutions that can make a difference for Westerners.
“The issue that might resonate with voters is we need to do something to help people in small Western towns,” Freemuth said.
Clinton campaign spokeswoman Gwendolyn Rocco said Clinton has an ambitious agenda for helping all of rural America.
“From investing in infrastructure and expanding access to credit, to opposing efforts to seize, sell, transfer or dispose of our public lands, as president, Hillary Clinton will work to strengthen rural America for the next generation,” Rocco said.
The first signal of whether the federal lands question will play any kind of role in the Republican primary in Western states will come Tuesday in Nevada’s Republican caucuses, Yates said.
The Idaho Republican Primary is March 8. The Democratic Caucuses are March 22.