Op-Ed: Land Transfer Agenda Threatens Public Lands and State Budgets

Folks in the West love our public lands, and for many reasons; the ample places to hunt, fish, camp, hike, ride and otherwise enjoy the great outdoors are a significant reason they choose to live, work and raise our families where we do. 

That’s just one segment of our cherished way of life that was on the line during the recent election. To folks on the coasts, it may seem insignificant, but to most people in the Rocky Mountain West these are integral parts of our heritage.  And it was on our minds in the ballot box. 

President-elect Donald Trump signaled openness to keeping the lands great on the campaign trail when asked if he supported plans to transfer nationally owned lands to states.  Let’s hope he continues that approach because there’s a lot at stake. 

Let’s also hope that the leaders of the American Lands Council (ALC)—the principal lobby group supporting land seizure — follow his lead in this respect. 

The dream of the ALC is for local counties and states to take over what is currently public land, owned by all U.S. taxpayers, and managed by the federal government.  In their pie-in-the-sky scenario, more revenue can be culled from our public lands through more aggressive logging, mining, grazing and development of these lands for direct revenue generation.  This, they say, will leave counties and states flush with cash.

Unfortunately they couldn’t be more wrong: Transferring public lands to local jurisdictions means transferring the management responsibilities – and the significant management costs – as well.

The cost of forest fire suppression by federal agencies alone has ballooned in recent years, surpassing $2 billion dollars in 2015 when agencies battled almost 70,000 individual fires.  The U.S. Forest Service projects that by 2025, over 67% of it’s budget will be spent on fire suppression, up from over 50% in 2015 and a mere 16% in 1995.  States and counties simply do not have the funding, expertise or equipment to manage the increasing occurrence of fires and protect these lands. 

Costly lawsuits, like Utah’s $2 million boondoggle, attempting to force the turnover of public lands are doomed to fail, so says the bi-partisan Conference of Western Attorneys General.  At it’s meeting over the summer, CWAG members voted 11-1 to adopt a report, produced collaboratively by a team of attorneys from the AG offices in eleven western states.  The report dismisses claims made by proponents of the land seizure movement that the United States is legally obligated to transfer public lands to the states. 

Elections are a valued part of our democracy.  Let’s hope that the American Lands Council follows President-elect Trump’s openness to keeping our valued public lands in public hands for us all to enjoy.  And we stand ready to work with them both to accomplish this.

Chris Saeger is the Director of Western Values Project, a non-profit public lands advocacy organization that gives voice to Western values in the national conversation about energy development and public lands conservation – a space too often dominated by industry lobbyists and their allies in government.