Should federal lands be turned over to the states? The Montezuma County Commission says yes


Illustration by Travis Kelly

At the end of the day on March 16, the Montezuma County commissioners took a quick vote on a proposed expenditure.

The amount of money was relatively small – $1,000 – and the topic wasn’t even listed on the agenda.

But the 2-0 vote by commissioners James Lambert and Larry Don Suckla (Keenan Ertel was absent) made a clear and significant statement: Montezuma County is in favor of turning federal public lands over to the states.

In voting to pay dues to the American Lands Council, the county has aligned itself with a movement that appears to be gaining steam.

In 2012, Utah legislators passed, and the governor signed, a bill demanding that more than 20 million acres of federal lands within the state be handed over, or the state will sue.

Late in March, the U.S. Senate, on a 51-49 vote, supported a budget-resolution amendment calling for all federal lands other than national parks and monuments to be sold or given away. Earlier, the House of Representatives had overwhelmingly approved a resolution endorsing the idea of reducing the federal estate and “giving states and localities more control over the resources within their boundaries.”

Both resolutions were nonbinding, so their passage was symbolic, but it’s an indication of the politicians’ sentiment.

Suckla told the Free Press the county joined the American Lands Council because “they’re an advocate for states having the right, if they so choose, to have federal lands transferred over to state jurisdiction.”

Suckla said he believes states could provide better management of public land.

“The federal government manages it from Washington, and all forests and BLM lands are different and need to be managed accordingly,” he said. “So if it was managed by the states vs. Washington, D.C., it would have to get more local input and I believe it would be managed better.”

On its website, the American Lands Council says the lands transfer would exclude existing national parks and monuments, wilderness areas, Indian reservations, and military installations.

But many critics are alarmed by the idea of dissolving the nation’s system of national forests and BLM holdings. They call it a thinly cloaked measure to allow oil and gas interests and timber companies to steamroll over resource protections.

According to an article posted at thinkprogress. org, legislative efforts advocating the lands transfer are “quietly drafted and promoted” by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit funded by a slew of corporations including Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, and Peabody Energy. ALEC reportedly also has worked on draft legislation to modify the Antiquities Act and Endangered Species Act, and to stop the federal government from regulating hydraulic fracturing.

‘Locked gates’

“Our public lands are part of our American heritage,” said U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, in a conference call with members of the press on March 25. He said if Congress sold off public lands, it would lead to “a proliferation of locked gates and no-trespassing signs” and “would devastate our traditions. . . that are central to Western culture.”

In his years in the House and Senate, he said, “I have never witnessed such a comprehensive assault on our public lands as we have seen in the last year or so, but our public lands are not for sale.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, also spoke during the conference call, saying that public lands are “part of the fabric of our country and our country’s history” and calling for Congress to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that funds preservation and management of special areas.

But Suckla said putting public lands in the hands of each state would streamline development and provide management more precisely attuned to the needs of each particular area.

“With local input, which we haven’t been given, things could move faster,” he said. “If the county had control of [a proposed bike] trail from Dolores to House Creek [a site on McPhee Reservoir], it would already have been built.”

Furthermore, he said, by the time Forest Service or BLM managers do become familiar with the local area, they are likely to transfer elsewhere.

“When they finally learn our forest, they move them to a different forest, so there’s no long-term employment with the leaders of the BLM and Forest Service,” Suckla said. “You get somebody from a different type of forest with a different type of trees and they try to manage our forest like the type they came from. A lot of times that doesn’t work.

“It’s not the fault of the local officials for the Forest Service and BLM. I happen to really like them. It’s that they are directed from Washington and their hands are tied.”

‘Opposing any effort’

The idea of giving federal public lands to the states has arisen periodically over the years, fueled by frustration on the part of Western counties that have huge chunks of federally managed territory within their boundaries. In Montezuma County, for instance, about 37 percent of the land is federal public land; an additional 33 percent is the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

The state of Utah is 66.5 percent federally owned, according to the Congressional Research Service, and Colorado is 36.2 percent federal. Some 28 percent of the land in the United States belongs to the federal government, much of that in the West.

Proponents of a state takeover argue that promises were made by Congress in the 1800s that federal control of these lands was to be only temporary. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the concept of congressional authority over federal land, and the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel has said that the state’s 2012 bill calling for a public-land giveaway has “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”

Utah is a hub of anti-federal sentiment, and it’s not coincidental that the American Lands Council was created by one of that state’s legislators, Rep. Ken Ivory, along with Elko, Nev., County Commissioner Demar Dahl.

Ivory is the director of the council, for which he was reportedly paid $40,000 in 2012, and his wife is also a paid employee as communications director.

The Salt Lake Tribune has raised the issue of whether Ivory, in pushing this single issue, is acting as a lobbyist and whether that poses an ethical conflict with his work as a state legislator.

The American Lands Council pulls in at least $219,000 a year from its county memberships, according to a list posted online by the Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan nonprofit. There are also municipal, business, and individual memberships.

At least 20 of Utah’s 29 counties have joined the council. In Colorado, Montrose and Mesa counties had joined prior to Montezuma, according to the list. However, Garfield County decided against it. The Grand Junction Sentinel reported that one Garfield commissioner voiced concern that transferring federal lands to the state could mean voters could then decide their management through ballot initiatives amending the state Constitution, and another commissioner worried the state might sell off some of the lands. On March 25, the San Miguel County, Colo., commissioners unanimously passed a resolution opposing a lands transfer – “publicly stating the value of public lands to the county’s economy, recreation heritage and quality of life; and opposing any effort to claim, take over, litigate for or sell off federal public lands within San Miguel County.”

“Federal money and expertise to suppress wildfires is essential to protecting our communities, infrastructure and public lands,” the resolution also states. It says collaborative approaches “are more likely to produce effective management than would ownership or management of public lands by the state of Colorado.”

Suckla told the Free Press that the state would not be able to sell the lands it received, and the American Lands Council’s website likewise says the lands would not be sold, adding, “The lands will continue to be managed for multiple use, i.e., sustainable yield and protection of resources, hunting and fishing, and recreational access.”

However, there is no information on how the states, many of them financially strapped, would be prevented from selling lands in order to balance their budgets.

The idea of a massive lands transfer raises other questions, too:

  • Would the states charge fees to access some of their new lands? If so, would people have to pay a separate fee in every state?
  • Would grazing be allowed to continue? Proponents say yes, but the model of land ownership in Eastern states they often cite doesn’t include much publiclands grazing.
  • Would this mean there could never be any more new national parks or monuments?
  • Would the non-Western states be compensated for having helped pay to manage these public lands over the decades?

A voice mail left at the lands council’s office by the Free Press seeking more information on its plans and activities was never returned.

‘European-style estates’

On March 23, Montezuma County resident Wade Foster came before the commissioners to criticize the idea of a lands transfer.

In Colorado, he pointed out, “. . .we need to run a lottery just to keep our little state parks open.” He continued, “The federal public lands are currently funded by the whole of the United States, and they are still stretched pretty thin. States just don’t have the resources to keep these lands as well preserved and as lightly used, and as open to the use of the whole public, as they have been under the authority of the federal government.”

Given that, he said, the long-term goal of those pushing such a transfer must be “de facto privatization.”

“Imagine European-style estates at the head of the Dolores, based on longterm leases from the state of Colorado,” he said. “Imagine some very large industrial concern with very deep pockets leasing up large sections of headwaters lands, and then beginning long-term lawsuits claiming water rights.”

Foster said he does not want to see Montezuma County’s logo displayed on the council’s website.

“The ability to claim us as supporters and display us on their website has to be the only reason we were urged to pay to join, as opposed to them just sending us a representative to explain their position,” he said. “They do not really need our money, as they are largely funded by such groups as The American Legislative Exchange Council, which is in turn funded by very large industrial and commercial interests.”

However, another county resident, Dave Dove, then praised the commissioners’ decision to join the group. “The federal agencies are very poor managers of public lands,” he said. “They are doing an outrageously horrible job of protecting them.”

Foster’s concerns were echoed by Diane Wren, co-founder of Osprey Packs, the Cortez-based outdoor-gear company, in a guest column in the Montrose Daily Press. “Over 70 percent of voters in Colorado think our national public lands should remain open for the enjoyment of all Americans, and we agree – our land is part of our shared outdoor heritage, and part of what makes this country so great,” she wrote.

“Simply put, these land grabs are bad for our families, and bad for business. On behalf of Osprey and all of our employees, we urge our elected officials to address these efforts to transfer or sell off our public lands with loud and swift opposition.”

$238 million for one fire

Many critics have raised the question of whether the states can afford to maintain vast swaths of public land and roads. Just the cost of dealing with wildfires could be astronomical. It cost $238 million to fight the 2002 Hayman fire, the state’s largest, according to the Denver Post.

But Suckla told the Free Press the states should be able to afford the costs, especially assuming that the federal mineral estate now owned by the BLM was transferred to the states as well. The BLM owns sub-surface mineral rights under not just public land, but many private lands.

“The [mineral] royalties the federal government receives in Montezuma County average $30 million a year,” Suckla said, “yet our local Forest Service and BLM don’t have enough money to even manage the weeds on the forest. If the land belonged to the state, the state would get the $30 million.” Then, he said, Montezuma County might get up to $10 million instead of the $2 million it generally receives as its share of the royalties. Montezuma County has already been pressing to take over management of some recreational areas at McPhee Reservoir, currently managed by the Forest Service. The county originally sought control of the main boat ramp, the House Creek site and an area called Sage Hen, but has since decided it doesn’t want the main boat ramp.

The county has been frustrated by the glacial pace of Forest Service-managed efforts to get a breakwater built at the reservoir and find a new operator to develop a marina after one burned in 2002.

The commissioners believe McPhee is an example of the inefficiencies of federal management and are certain the county could do a much better job developing recreation at the lake.

Analyses vary over whether the states would prove better managers than the federal government. Back in 1997, an analysis done for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank founded by Koch Industries, concluded, “state governments are no better managers than are federal bureaucrats. They are just as economically inefficient, ecologically shortsighted, and politically driven as their federal counterparts.”

It said one reason federal governance of public lands may be so controversial is that it is just more visible than state land management.

But the analysis also found that “the belief that states would be more inclined to privatize public land is generally unsupported.”

The report recommended “getting politics out of land management to the greatest extent possible” and suggested the creation of public land trusts.

This latest push to get rid of federal public lands will probably fizzle out, as previous efforts have done, but it has prompted considerable discussion over land management and local input.

Suckla admitted he doesn’t actually expect that Colorado legislators would vote to take control of federal lands even if given the opportunity.

“But,” he added, “I believe that Utah would, and what a grand experiment to let Utah go ahead and do it and see what happens.”

From April 2015. Read similar stories about .