I have been hearing a lot about efforts to convince Congress to transfer federal lands to the public land states in the West.
It’s a recurring but misguided issue, and it could stand some clarification.
The first effort to turn over federal lands to the Western states came in 1946, when Sen. E.V. Robertson, a Wyoming rancher, introduced a bill that would have transferred nearly all federal land to the states, including mineral rights. It included a mechanism for transferring the lands to private ownership, with ranchers getting the first crack at the lands they had been using.
The legislation was backed by cattle and sheep-grazing interests and other public-land-resource users who preferred state ownership over federal. They controlled the state legislatures, but they couldn’t control Congress, outdoor writer Ted Trueblood wrote in his 1980 Field and Stream article “They’re Fixing to Steal Your Land.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
When Harper’s Magazine columnist Bernard DeVoto blew the whistle on the legislation in a 1947 column, other media took up the issue. Public outrage at the time forced supporters to withdraw the bill.
The Sagebrush Rebellion returned in 1979, with a demand to “return” federal lands to the states. And the issue has come up occasionally since then, at times disguised as the Wise Use Movement.
On Thursday, April 16, Fred Birnbaum of the Idaho Freedom Foundation brought it up again, as have others in the past several months, in support of an effort he termed “the transfer of federal lands back to the states.” But as Trueblood pointed out in 1980 and DeVoto in 1947, the call to return federal lands was as dishonest then as it is today. Idaho never owned any of the federal lands that some are clamoring to get back.
Idaho, along with Washington and Oregon and parts of Montana and Wyoming, became part of the U.S. public domain as a result of the Oregon Compromise with Great Britain in 1846, which established the U.S.-Canadian border.
Congress spent the next 130 years trying to give the land away. Then in 1976 it recognized the value of the land and the importance of its resources to the country. In the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, Congress gave a clear statement of its intent to hang on to the remaining federal lands “to be retrained and managed for the greatest public good.”
The Idaho Constitution and admitting legislation both disavow any claim to federal lands not already granted to the state at the time of statehood, leaving any further grants up to Congress.
Perhaps critics of federal land management forget that those lands are not managed just to provide forage, timber and minerals. It is disingenuous to blame the struggles of rural communities on federal land managers. In the past, land management has been mired in political meddling on behalf of personal and corporate greed.
Yes, the federal government loses money on public lands, in part because it subsidizes grazing and logging, gives away valuable minerals and sells mining claims for a pittance.
It’s not all about recreation either. Federal lands are managed for some things more important, such as watershed protection, wildlife habitat, clean air, rare and endangered species, and other valuable resources including unmatched aesthetics.
Federal public lands, totaling more than 600 million acres, constitute “the largest village green in human history,” Richard W. Behan wrote in his book “Plundered Promise.”
Let’s not be too quick to give it away.