By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund.
It’s an election year, so a hardy perennial is sprouting again in western legislatures: the idea that states can, and should, take over millions of acres of federally managed land. As always, these proposals are unconstitutional and doomed to failure, but not before state politicians harvest a bumper crop of right wing outrage to feed their campaigns’ rhetorical war chests.
In Arizona, the state Senate last week overwhelmingly approved a bill that somehow requires the U.S. to extinguish all title to public lands in the state and transfer title to Arizona.
In Utah, a couple of days before Arizona made itself look foolish, the state legislature adopted a similar measure and set up a process for suing if the U.S. doesn’t capitulate by the end of 2014 to its demand for control of about 30 million acres owned by all Americans and managed on their behalf by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. The legislation excludes national parks, designated wilderness areas and most national monuments.
In a state where education is chronically underfunded, the legislature has also authorized the attorney general to spend $3 million on the legal battle, a fight the legislature’s own attorney has said will likely fail. The legislation also flies in the face of public opinion in a region where 9 out of 10 respondents to a recent poll say that public lands are a key economic driver and are important to their quality of life.
John Leshy, a noted legal scholar on federal lands law who served as Interior Department solicitor during the Clinton administration, neatly summed up expert opinion on the phony issue:
Legally, it’s a ridiculous claim. It would be thrown out in federal court in five seconds. This is all about cranky, symbolic politics.”
The simple facts of the matter are that Utah relinquished any claim to those federal lands when it became a state, and under the Constitution only Congress can authorize their disposal.
The Salt Lake Tribune, an outpost of sanity in a state that seems increasingly taken over by the zany right, called the entire exercise an “embarrassing snipe hunt”:
Chance of success: Absolutely zero. Chance of motivating the far-right base of the Republican Party, the part that actually votes in the upcoming precinct caucuses and county and state conventions: Appallingly high.
Ever since the Sagebrush Rebellion of a generation ago, right wing politicians in the thrall of mining, energy, timber and livestock interests have kept alive the fantasy of a mass takeover of federal western lands. Not surprisingly, these delusions flourish in election years.
Republicans running for their party’s presidential nomination, including Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, have been pandering to backers of this hopeless and wrongheaded cause. Romney said in Nevada he doesn’t know what the purpose is of federal land. Santorum said in Idaho the public estate should be sold to the private sector or taken over by the states. Paul in Nevada said he flat out opposes federal land ownership.
Timothy Egan, an elegant and perceptive chronicler of western life and history, shined a bright light of reason on those nutty ideas. In a New York Times piece last week he reminded the GOP that it was one of their own, Theodore Roosevelt, who saved so much of the public estate for future generations who, unlike the current crop of candidates, revere those landscapes.
The rest of us need our public land. The West is defined by new, fast-growing cities surrounded by the mountains, mesas, forests, sandstone spires and various shared settings. There is no other place in the world where urban and wild coexist over such a huge area. If you are poor, you can feel rich just minutes from the city, in your estate that is a national forest. If you ski in the high Sierra, or raft a runaway river in Utah, you are most likely doing it on land whose only deed of title is held by all citizens.