Several western states are pursuing, in one form or another, the “transfer” of federal lands to state ownership. The initial response by many conservationists, politicians, and Westerners was tepid, probably based on a hunch that these calls would quickly dissipate. But now an increasing number of groups and politicians are pushing back and engaging on this issue, in part driven by their fear that the real aim of these initiatives is not the transfer of federal lands to the states, but rather the privatization of public lands.
A closer look at what’s happened to lands that have already been granted to the states, the politics of today’s state land transfer movement, the history of such proposals, and their dubious economics show that the fear that state ownership would eventually lead to the privatization of public lands is a legitimate one.
First, when it comes to history, the past is not always prologue, but it is of particular importance in this case. Consider what happened to significant amounts of state trust land that were conveyed to the states by the federal government during the era of land disposals (~1776-1891). Most of the early states receiving granted trust lands quickly sold them. Western states that were subsequently granted trust lands provided restrictions on their sale, though others liquidated the majority of their granted lands. Nevada, for example, retains roughly 3,000 acres of its original 2.7 million acre grant. And what about Utah, where the latest rebellion is headquartered? Roughly half of the lands granted to the state have been sold into private ownership.
Next, privatization played a central role in the last Sagebrush Rebellion and there is every reason to suspect it will star in the sequel. Sagebrush rebels in the 1980s struggled to coalesce around a shared vision of what to do with transferred federal lands. Would federal lands, for example, be auctioned off to the highest bidder, which could include wealthy interests from outside the West buying them? Or rather would they be sold with preference being given to particular interests, such as ranchers with existing federal grazing leases?
Studies of this period emphasize the significance of the internal division between those seeking state ownership and others advocating for privatization. As Robert Nelson, writing for the American Enterprise Institute put it in 1984, the sagebrush rebellion and privatization movements were “caught up in critical contradictions on basic principle” [and] “these contradictions became apparent, and lethal, as soon as proponents made significant efforts to move from rhetoric to action.”
The same questions exist today. As the Los Angeles Times put in a recent editorial, “One wonders whether, like a dog chasing a car, they've figured out what they would do with the land if they got hold of it?” Rallying against the federal government proves easier than providing a detailed plan of how transferred lands would be managed exactly.
The politics of today’s land “transfer” movement is another reason to suspect that state ownership is a prelude to privatization. For example, the Republican Party platform asks Congress to “reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings….could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.” Multiple congressional bills and budget plans have been also introduced in Congress that explicitly seek to privatize significant amounts of federal land, including the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act (H.R. 2657), the House Budget Committee’s 2015 resolution, and an amendment from Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would require states made up of more than 50% federal lands to transfer “excess” lands to states or sell them off at auction.
Those advocating for state ownership should not be surprised when people link their cause to privatization. After all, it is the official position of the Republican Party and several of its members are attempting to make it a reality.
Finally, the economic costs associated with federal land management also explain the suspicion that state ownership is a Trojan horse for privatization. Federal land management is expensive, with some of the most significant costs associated with things like fighting fire and maintaining roads. Unable to pay for these costs, people fear that states will choose to sell these lands. A more likely scenario would be for the states to retain the most economically profitable federal lands while disposing of parcels that don’t pay the bills. The problem is that land with relatively little economic value can be rich in other ways, such as sustaining water flows, providing habitat for wildlife, or offering access to hunters.
There have always been interests wanting to privatize federal lands. For politicians, the idea is a political loser, as poll after poll demonstrates Western support for public lands. This might explain why advocates of state ownership provide absolutely no details regarding their plans for the transfer of the federal estate. Instead of specifics are hollow promises that the states will miraculously figure out how to avoid the necessary trade-offs inherent in public land management.
The more probable outlook is that significant amounts of public land would be privatized. For those lands not sold, political conflict would simply shift from the federal to state level. Same fights, different venue. Of course, some economic interests want this change of venue, for state legislatures can be easier to control than a polarized Congress representing national interests. But, then again, most western states also allow for ballot initiatives, which could potentially make public lands management even more challenging.
It is the birthright of Westerners to complain about the mismanagement of federal lands—for either too much or too little protection. That is the messy, democratic part of public lands management. But few westerners have any interest in selling out our public lands legacy, a legacy that helps make the West, the West.