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Will The West Be Sold?

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy made headlines when a decades-old disagreement with authorities over grazing rights on federally owned land escalated into a heated showdown between local and federal law enforcement agents. The Bundy dispute prompted reactions from high-profile politicians of all stripes and garnered intense media coverage, bringing hundreds of states’ rights activists to rally around the cause. Its most significant claim to relevance, however, is the rekindling of a dormant issue — one that cuts to the center of Western identity and the role of the federal government. With everything from quiet rangelands to the scenic vistas of Yellowstone National Park on the table, federalists and land transfer critics seeking to protect Americans’ shared heritage are fighting each other over who should hold the heart of the West: the states or the more secure hands of the federal government.

Much of the debate is grounded in regional inequalities in federal land management. The US government oversees a far greater portion of land in the West than it does elsewhere in the country. While non-Western states are collectively responsible for managing over 95 percent of all land within their borders, Western ones serve as custodians for less than 50 percent of their region’s land, with federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the US Forest Service maintaining the rest. States’ rights advocates argue that the time has come to devolve land management, while critics of this so-called transfer argument warn — with compelling reason — that such a policy will surely bring financial ruin to these states.

Federalists insist that the management of public lands by the central government has significantly weakened their state governments. Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, a leader of the movement to transfer federally managed lands to state governments, argued in his successful 2014 reelection campaign that the federal government’s oversight of public lands has denied the state billions of dollars in annual revenue for essential government programs. Public lands, which in Utah’s case make up two-thirds of its total area, generate revenues from grazing permits, mineral leases and tourism — money that Western states today don’t have access to.

In addition to their fiscal argument, these advocates maintain that the federal management of Western lands represents historical injustice and inequality. Federalists assert that states east of the 100th Parallel have prospered in large part thanks to the federal government’s historical policy of bequeathing lands held in trust unto these states, which can then collect the related revenues. Today, there is almost no federally controlled trust land in states like Ohio and Florida, which were instead granted hundreds of thousands of acres of land upon their statehood. However, many states west of the 100th Parallel were not so lucky. Most of their land is still held by the federal government — a fact that land transfer advocates claim is a weighty disadvantage.

Land transfer advocates have gathered a great deal of support, as the Bundy affair clearly shows. But their argument has provoked a strong challenge from opponents who rightly question the impact that transfers would have on the region’s finances and identity. Transfer advocates’ economic argument hinges on the assumption that the federal government is currently reaping enormous revenues from public lands. While this might be true, it’s a narrow view that overlooks the point that opponents of transfers make: The management of vast new tracts of land would bleed states dry, regardless of whatever revenues might be drawn from tourism or permits.

In addition to the significant costs associated with day-to-day maintenance, the primary expenses that concern critics are those generated by forest fires. The Washington Post estimates that the federal government spends more than $2 billion annually on costs associated with these natural disasters. This financial burden would presumably be passed onto Western states if they were to assume management of public lands, and states may not be able to afford those costs. While Representative Ivory and others insist that land transfers are the key to increasing state revenue by billions of dollars, studies by nonpartisan groups such as the Center for Western Priorities have instead suggested that public land management could, in fact, cost states tens of millions of dollars every year.

Land transfer critics have also argued that the devolution of lands would lead to massive sell-offs of communal land in order to balance state books. Westerners consistently react with shock and outrage to the notion of privatizing public lands — the cornerstone of the region’s economy, recreation and cultural identity — and have castigated pro-transfer political leaders accordingly. A poll by the Center for American Progress found that a majority of Westerners both across the region and within every state except Utah oppose land transfers. Grassroots advocates have taken to social media with messages like #keepitpublic in protest of transfers and land sales, and conservation groups including the Sierra Club and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have rallied around the cause as well.

Despite the weight of these counterarguments, federalists nevertheless continue to push land transfer bills in state legislatures from Alaska to New Mexico — with some success. Bills demanding that the federal government transfer all federally managed lands have passed in states such as Idaho and Utah, and bills mandating studies of the legality and viability of such transfers have become law in Montana, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming. Considering the general opposition of Westerners, this level of success is impressive, if unfortunate. Moreover, it’s indicative of how hard transfer advocates have been pushing.

Federalists’ surprising success has been made possible, in part, by the support of powerful national organizations such as the American Lands Council, a pro-transfer network, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization supported by big oil companies. ALEC is known for the pre-made “model legislation” it provides to members and now counts a land transfer bill as one of these models. The organization also named Ivory as its Legislator of the Year in 2014, largely because of his advocacy for land transfers. Funding and lobbying efforts from these organizations have secured limited successes for transfer advocates, even though they have faced off against public opposition and big-name environmental organizations. Fortunately, however, no substantial progress has been made towards transfers, since the state legislation cannot actually compel the federal government to comply.

While most of the political fighting surrounding the land transfer debate has taken place within the halls of state legislatures, higher elected officials have also weighed in. At the beginning of 2014, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution endorsing land transfers. Republican Senators Dean Heller of Nevada and Steve Daines of Montana have both advocated for land transfers, and in March, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski added a land transfer amendment to this year’s federal budget, which passed 51-49. But even with these prominent politicians on board, the movement has made slow progress. Even Murkowski’s amendment is only symbolic; it doesn’t actually sell or transfer any public lands. And on the other side of the aisle, prominent Western Democrats such as New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Montana Governor Steve Bullock have come to the defense of public lands, speaking out against transfers and trying to repel Bundy supporters and transfer advocates alike.

The debate also played out in several of 2014’s midterm elections. In the Montana Senate race, Democratic candidate Amanda Curtis lambasted the Republican Daines for his alleged support of public land sales, saying that his position “shows he’s out of touch with most working families in the state, [who] can’t go on vacation unless they have access to public lands.” While Curtis lost by a considerable margin, other anti-transfer candidates fared better. Incumbent Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, for example, defeated his staunchly pro-transfer Republican challenger Bob Beauprez, who declared that the state’s public lands were “supposed to be Colorado’s.” With more anti-transfer than pro-transfer politicians in the halls of Western state capitols, it looks like public lands will be protected. But the upsurge of federalist interest in land transfers suggests that transfer opponents may soon face a steeper uphill battle.

While Beauprez lost his election, his message exposes the question of cultural identity that lies at the core of the public lands debate. Regardless of the financial burden of transfers, it’s unclear who has a fundamental claim to the public lands. Small-government voices like Beauprez clearly stand with those who argue that spaces like Mesa Verde and Pikes Peak are manifestations of Colorado’s cultural heritage, not of the United States at large. Beauprez’s view may have limited currency in the American West, but so far his opponents have managed to push him to the political fringe. The 2015 Western States Survey, a nonpartisan annual poll of Westerners, found that a majority in every state views public lands not as cultural objects of the state, but instead as “American spaces” — quintessential parts of what defines the United States itself.

The overwhelming popularity of anti-transfer views, even in the face of a well-funded and dedicated federalist case for land transfers, reflects the importance of these lands to Westerners and how seriously they take any threat to them. Some Westerners certainly distrust the federal government, but they are even more suspicious of those who would intrude upon citizens’ ability to access the spaces that have, for so long, defined the boundless Wild West and the country as a whole.

Art by Katrina Machado.