Debate continues over lands-transfer concept

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The idea of transferring public lands from the federal government to the states remains a hot topic in Montezuma County.

Ever since the county commissioners voted in March to give $1,000 to the Utah-based American Lands Council, a group that lobbies for the transfer, the issue has been discussed at commission meetings and in other venues.

On May 18, at a meeting of the local 9-12 Project, a state senator from Montana made the case for transferring ownership of multiple-use lands to the states. Addressing a crowd of about three dozen, guest speaker Jennifer Fielder, a Republican, maintained states would be better at managing national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands within their borders because they’re closer to the lands and have a greater interest in their management.

Fielder is a volunteer with the American Lands Council, a group that has sparked some controversy for its fundraising across the West.

According to High Country News, in 2013, the non-profit brought in approximately $200,000 in contributions, $134,000 of which came from county memberships. In the same year, HCN reported, 50 percent of the lands council’s revenues went to pay salaries for founder Ken Ivory, a Utah state legislator, and his wife. (See full story at http://fourcornersfreepress.com/?p=2544)

Fielder said she supports the lands transfer because “it is the only solution big enough” to address problems regarding public-lands management.

Worried about beetle kills, wildfires, invasive species, access restrictions and watershed degradations, many Western states have passed legislation either supporting the transfer or advocating that the idea be studied.

Fielder said a survey was conducted in Montana of every county that had at least 15 percent of its acreage under federal control. Of the 28 counties that responded, 96 percent said they were experiencing severe wildfire conditions on federal lands, 79 percent said important habitat was at risk on federal lands, and 62 percent said air quality in their county fell below acceptable health standards because of smoke from wildfires.

Ninety-one percent said PILT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) monies, which are given to counties with federal lands, were not equal to taxable land values.

“If resources were managed correctly we would get more value off the land,” Fielder said.

Ninety-six percent said motorized access was important for sustenance activities such as mushroom-gathering, hunting, trapping, firewood-collecting and berry-picking. None of the counties wanted to see fewer multiple-use access routes on federal lands, Fielder said, yet BLM and Forest Service land-management plans are reducing access.

“In some places it makes sense to close down some access, but we’re seeing widespread closures for reasons that don’t make sense,” she said.

She said she doesn’t necessarily blame employees of the agencies, because they are seeing budget cuts and much of their money goes to fighting fires and lawsuits. “In some cases 80 to 90 percent [of their budget] goes to those two items,” she said. “Only 10 percent is left for managing resources. It is a real conundrum for the people trying to do their job.”

She blamed decreased logging for increased wildfires and said the states would allow much-more-streamlined timber production.

The only solution, she said, is to transfer management to the states.

“The people that live there are more interested in seeing better management than the people in New Jersey,” she said.

Concerns have arisen that states would sell some of the transferred lands, she said, but this could be precluded by legislation forbidding it. She introduced such legislation in Montana, she said, but ultimately it failed because of opposition from environmentalists.

Throughout the history of the United States, millions of acres have been transferred to state control already, she said. Lands were transferred in the East, where most states have very little federally controlled land.

Also, she noted, “It’s where state trust lands come from.”

Advocates of the transfer cite the “Property Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”

They say the phrase “dispose of ” indicates the federal lands were always intended to be transferred, not retained.

Fielder said national parks, wilderness areas, Indian reservations and military installations would not be included in the transfer.

Audience member Bud Garner asked why those lands should be excluded. “If there is a constitutional argument, then there has to be a complete constitutional argument,” he said.

“We don’t want the opposition saying, ‘They’re going to take our wilderness areas or national parks’,” Fielder said. “They are very popular.” When Garner pressed the question, she said excluding parks and wilderness areas was a necessary political compromise.

Audience member Dave Sokol asked whether the transferred lands could be leased by states rather than sold outright, possibly for purposes such as strip-mining that would render them useless for recreation. Sokol cited the case of the Christmas Mountains in Texas. In 1991, a foundation donated a 9,200-acre tract in the Christmas Mountains to the state, which was to preserve it and keep it forever wild. However, the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office decided it would be better to sell the tract because the state could not afford to protect the land from poachers and replenish its wildlife. After a protracted battle, in 2011 the land was put under the control of the Texas State University System.

“The state trust lands are to be managed for the highest and best use and they are managed to maximize proceeds,” Fielder responded. “The movement we’re working on now isn’t to take the land and put it in state-trust-land status.” She said the idea was to “manage it better but allow it to be open,” but did not directly address the leasing issue.

The transfer question had also come up at the Montezuma County Commission meeting earlier on May 18.

During public comments, local resident Matt Clark, who said he was speaking on behalf of himself and friends who are backcountry hunters and anglers, worried about impacts to access if public lands were transferred. He said the way the state manages lands is “way different” because their highest goal is economic benefit and the state doesn’t have the resources that the federal government does for managing lands.

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said the Forest Service and BLM combined have an annual budget of $3 million in the local area even though the federal government receives $30 million a year in mineral royalties from within the county. Clark said that was not entirely true because other factors make the budget much larger, including funds spent on fire suppression.

Commissioner Keenan Ertel said if the lands were managed better there wouldn’t be the need for so much fire suppression.

Clark said he believes there would be a greater chance of privatization if the lands were managed by the state.

Another local, Sam Carter, also told the board he opposes the transfer. “I appreciate the way the feds take care of the land and I would like to see things stay the way they are,” he said. He said it’s important that the commissioners reach out to everyone in the community before taking a stance on the transfer.

He spoke about the commission’s decision to spend $1,000 to join the American Lands Council. “You should do a survey and talk to all of us before you make a decision like that,” he said. “You only talked to the people who put you into office.”

Suckla said 219 counties have joined the lands council.

Citizen Dave Dove then spoke in favor of the transfer, saying opponents were not speaking the truth. “The feds do a terrible job,” he said.

M.B. McAfee told the board the commission should organize focus groups and try to hear a diversity of opinions from different citizens.

Later, the commissiioners asked Derek Padilla, district manager for the Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest, his views on the transfer. He said he could not advocate for any position, but said he’d talked to a sportsman who comes to Colorado to hunt because there is no public-lands access in Texas because it is “basically all private property.” Only about 5 percent of Texas land is publicly owned. Padilla said a few road closures here did not make the situation comparable to the East, where there is much less public land. He said an Arkansas man told him that, given the choice, he’d rather deal with the public-lands status in the Western states than have no public land at all.

David Long contributed to this report.

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