By Jessica Goad and Tom Kenworthy via CAP
Despite the many problems that states and municipalities face today—from budget shortfalls to unemployment—seven western states have decided to embark on unconstitutional and quixotic battles attempting to force the federal government to turn millions of acres of public lands over to the states. Doing so, however, would result in the eventual exploitation for private profits of these beautiful parks, refuges, forests, and other lands because the leaders driving such efforts would prefer to see quick economic gains from resource extraction rather than prioritizing these areas’ more sustainable economic uses such as recreation.
Rather than being managed so that all Americans can enjoy them, turning our public lands over to states would result in their management on the whims of governors and state legislatures, who in the West are often quite conservative and tend to ideologically favor limited regulation and private profits. According to one state lands commissioner, these bills would be “catastrophic” to the public lands that Americans know and love.
Clashes between states and the federal government over their respective authorities have long been a regular feature of our politics, especially when it comes to issues regarding control over federal public lands in the West. More than 700 million acres of federal public lands, including national parks, national forests, and national monuments, belong to all Americans, and are tremendous economic generators—the Department of the Interior stimulated $385 billion in economic development and more than 2 million jobs in 2011 alone. At times, conflicts over ownership of the federally managed parks, forests, refuges, and other properties have grown into a regional cause in the West, as they did during the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a political movement demanding the turnover of federal lands to the states that arose in the 1970s but eventually fizzled out in the late 1980s.
We are now seeing yet another iteration of that hardy but misguided western impulse. These state legislative efforts are nothing more than corporate-backed messaging tools that can be traced to conservative front groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, and Americans for Prosperity, as we discuss further below. The proposals run directly contrary to abundant evidence that Americans and westerners support federal management of their public lands and value the economic benefits those lands provide, especially when they are protected from mining and drilling and are used instead for recreation and other more sustainable purposes.
In the past year, legislatures in seven western states — Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho — have passed, introduced, or explored legislation demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of federal public lands to the states. If successful, these bills could be disastrous: Rather than being managed for the benefit and use of the American public, these lands will instead be managed in whatever way each state wants to use them—which generally means maximizing private profits through mining, drilling, and other resource extraction.
These lawmakers are waging a losing battle that amounts to little more than political grandstanding to rally their extreme conservative base and feed an antigovernment narrative. Such bills contradict the majority of public opinion in these states, as well as economic realities and constitutional precedent dating back to the mid-19th century.
ALEC and Americans for Prosperity have been fanning the fire under these efforts to “reclaim” federal public lands. ALEC is a conservative corporate front group funded by fossil-fuel interests such as the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil that develops model legislation for state legislators to introduce in their legislatures, and it has endorsed many of the bills turning public lands over to the states. As the Associated Press reported, “Lawmakers in Utah and Arizona have said the legislation is endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that advocates conservative ideals, and they expect it to eventually be introduced in other Western states.”
That should come as little surprise, considering that one of ALEC’s “model bills” — those that it drafts and develops to shop to various state legislators — is the “Sagebrush Rebellion Act,” which was “designed to establish a mechanism for the transfer of ownership of” non-state lands “from the federal government to the states.”
Further evidence that ALEC is the puppet master behind these performances: Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory (R), who is leading the charge for states to “take back” public lands through his “American Lands Council,” has been presenting the idea of turning federal land over to the states at ALEC conferences such as the one in Salt Lake City last summer. Additionally, Rep. Ivory has been promoting this idea to various state legislatures — he spoke, for example, with Wyoming’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee in October 2012.
Proponents of these bills claim that the states do not receive tax revenue from federal lands and argue that the proceeds from turning the land over to the states to then be further developed can help fund essential state services such as education. They also argue that the federal government promised to turn public lands over to the states at the establishment of their statehoods more than 100 years ago.
This issue brief provides an overview of each state’s attempt to force the turnover of public lands, and then describes why this is not only bad policy that is not in accordance with what westerners actually believe, but is also unconstitutional based on numerous Supreme Court decisions.