Take state land away from feds, advocate urges

Opponent of idea says likely pitfalls too big and numerous to overcome

States should be given control of many of the federal lands within their borders, a Utah legislator told more than 150 people in Grand Junction on Thursday, prompting critics to observe that supporters ought to be careful what they wish for.

Ken Ivory, president of the American Public Lands Council, and Doug Young of the Keystone Center in Colorado, a facilitator of national policy conflicts, spoke at a Club 20 meeting, “Transfer of Public Lands, not just a Western Issue,” at the DoubleTree Hotel.

Many states, including those in the Midwest and South, had to grapple with the federal government to force it to release federal lands within their borders to the state governments, and that was long before the mountainous western states were admitted to the union, Ivory said. Illinois, for instance, in the 1840s was one of the most insistent that federal lands be turned over to the state, Ivory noted.

That could free up lands for mineral development, forests for better management and ultimately open much of the federal budget for doing other things, Ivory said.

“When decisions are made by people closest to the matter, you get a better decision,” he said, comparing decisions made in Denver and Salt Lake City to those made in Washington, D.C.

States should be “able to manage our own growth, manage our own progress,” Ivory said.

Even if there is a legal case to be made for transferring federal lands to the states, there is the question of whether there is the political will in the states to force the issue, Young said.

Resolving the issue “would be too polarizing for a lot of folks,” Young said.

State constitutions include provisions requiring that the proceeds from the sale of federal land transferred to the states be split, with 95 percent going to the federal government.

Legislation he is working on in Utah would do exactly the same thing, Ivory said.

The real upshot, however, of transfer would be the sale of formerly federal lands, said Scott Braden, public lands advocate for Conservation Colorado.

“They would eventually sell off” as slipping fortunes demanded new infusions of money to states, he said.

And the state constitution is “pretty black and white” that the federal government has control of the lands it now controls within the states, Braden said.

The provisions, however, are identical in states such as Colorado, which is about 40 percent federal, and states such as Illinois, in which the federal government did transfer ownership, Ivory said.

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t taken up the question, Ivory said.

An economic study done by the three major universities in Utah concluded that the state could take over the federal role.

It would require increasing mineral revenues by about 15 percent, Ivory noted, but under state control. “We wouldn’t manage the forests for maximum combustion,” as critics contend is the case under federal management.

State management, however, wouldn’t be a panacea, Young said.

“It’s not necessarily federal land ownership that causes the problem,” Young said, noting that transfers wouldn’t guarantee more mineral development, better forest management or other solutions to other problems.


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