Utah and Arizona trying to seize national parks, forests, BLM land-

The self-styled “sagebrush rebels” have never won any important victory in court. They have been repeatedly put down, but the idea that ownership of a fair portion of the West by the U.S. government is wrong or unconstitutional keeps coming back as soon as they see an opening. This year it was the Arizona and Utah legislatures that passed laws trying to seize the public lands, with rumblings in Idaho and other states.

This writer has been a “sagebrush patriot” from day one, back in 1978 when these “rebels” people first got organized.  I understood from my early teens that public lands meant freedom. Some landowner could not chase you off. I loved the outdoors and remembered the anger when somebody yelled, “you kids get off my land before I start shootin!” On the nearby Cache National Forest, I could go where I pleased.


U.S. public land (Caribou National Forest, 10 minutes from Pocatello, Idaho). I spent 3 hours walking this trail March 31. It took me just twenty minutes to get there. There were no fees. It was free. Lots of other people (ten or so) were using the trail. The land belonged to all of us. Should we let the state of Idaho grab it and sell it? Ralph Maughan

Yes, the West is special, especially good in the minds of most because of this freedom to roam. The trouble is most people don’t understand that other states don’t have this freedom or don’t understand that it depends on the perpetuation of the public lands of the United States, as currently managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (the BLM).  This lack of knowledge leaves them vulnerable to top down movements organized by the special interests to grab  the land.

These s “rebels” use abstract political arguments to advance their goals in public discourse. They almost never directly say are really after the national parks and monuments, national wildlife refuges and national forests.  Instead, they speak of “excess federal land,” or government lands “locked up from use.”  They don’t even use the word “public.”  Instead, they call them “federal” lands and say the states could manage them better than the “distant bureaucrats” in Washington.  They make that  argument despite any evidence. In fact, Utah and Arizona can barely keep their state parks open.  State Park fees are high.  We learned by sad experience that Arizona overcharges at their state parks.  This means they use them to generate money for the state general fund.  It does not go back to the state parks of Arizona.

More generally, the western states, except for Nevada, also have large tracts of state “public school endowment lands,” or just the “state lands.” The states were expressly given these lands by the U.S. government at statehood to support the public schools.  Most states sold all of them.  The Western states were given an especially big helping of public land to support the schools, belying the claim by Arizona and Utah that they were discriminated against at the time of statehood.  Visitors will find that the state lands are usually managed much more for extractive uses than adjacent U.S. public lands.  In many states, like Montana, you have to pay a fee to even enter these usually grazed out state lands.  In Wyoming you can’t camp on them without permission from the grazing permittee!  That is very far down the road to privatization.

If the states get their hands on any of these U.S. public lands, even national parks, privatization will come quickly, if only because they cannot afford to manage them.  Some will be auctioned, some given for “public” (actually private) purposes, many will become de facto private because the state will sell or give away all the access points to them. They will go to  the top 0.1%, and to friends of the governor on down the chain of elected officials, to big donors, etc.. The great national parks will likely be turned in commercial circuses and partly privatized for the mansions of the billionaires and the politically favored.

Seeing that the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court no longer really believes in the time honored rule of followed precedent, we cannot count on the courts to rebuff previously unconstitutional initiatives from the states.  The West desperately needs a larger and  informed public  of sagebrush patriots.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

17 Responses to Public land thieves gearing up for another land grab try

  1. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    If the U.S. Forest Service was abolished, that now controversial Forest Service recreational trapper up in Grangeville would be out of a job. It’s probably a pretty good paying one too compared to the area’s norm.

    A lot of small towns in the West would just slowly disappear because of the huge effect the federal payroll has in them.

    Closely related, is the current effort to destroy the U.S. Postal Service. If this succeeds, rural communities will really disappear quickly because UPS and FedEx are not going to pick up or deliver packages at a rate people in these communities can afford. Now USPS strongly subsidizes rural delivery and even delivers the packages sent by UPS.

    Sagebrush rebels, and their ideological anti-government soulmates will, if successful, end up destroying their home towns as surely as if an invading army did it.

  2. avatar cirque guy says:

    With all the oil shale permits opening up on public lands now it is happening without having to be overt about it. Who would want to ramble across our lands after oil is removed from the sand. Want to see what that looks like just look at northern Alberta. These are the 1/10 of the 1% that will flourish if we lose our lands through legislation. There would be no more being surprised by the flushing of grouse/quail/horned lark etc. No more hearing the screech of the red-tailed. Don’t be silent about this issue. If you don’t live in an area where the push is apparent, call relatives that do or contact senators and reps so that when they are approached about it they already know there are people that care. Tell them you know a place where the trees really are just about the right height and they are our trees and they are not for sale nor the ground and the rocks under them.

  3. avatar Ken Cole says:

    The states are already selling wildlife to the highest bidder. S1256 passed this week in Idaho and it grants groups like SFW tags which are auctioned off to the highest bidder. This has been the trend in Utah and will become more of a trend because these so called sportsmen are more worried that a wolf might eat an elk than they are about a politician selling one.

    • avatar Craig says:

      Funny how that got sidelined and wasn’t a big issue! Every frickin Hunting website was pissed off after hearing it and now it’s just law! Butch Otter and his fucking cronies need to get the hell out of office!

      • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

        Craig and everyone,

        They focus on wolves and unreal threats that hunting will be banned by animal rights groups from “The East” to cover up their real purpose and actions. We’ve all seen the bank robbery diversion in Westerns. Start a fight in the saloon while your partners in crime rob the bank.

  4. avatar CodyCoyote says:

    I think we can all (mostly) agree that the maps of public lands might need to be redrawn…the whole checkerboard railroad land grants or haphazard mosaic thing was an exercise in artistic absurdity. Look at any atlas style map of land use, where thew Forest Service lands are green, the BLM are yellow, the state lands blue, and private lands white, and the Indian Reservations/ wildlife refuges etc are pink. Set the map across the room. It looks like a shattered stained glass window, not a coherent ajudication of resources.

    Having said that , based on my experience and observations, the very LAST folks I want in charge of public lands are my own State Lands Office or state officialdom. Anhone who thinks the state is in a better position to manage land use because they are closer to the lands is a fool. That is the problem , not the solution. The state sees public lands as a cash cow in s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o many ways , and they have a dozen devious ways to lead that cow to slaughter forthwith . The States have far less of a conservation mandate and far more of an extraction manifest destiny than the Feds ever had. They look at public land and only see moneymaking. The Feds are fortunately bound by overarching laws and some fabulous farsighted mandates, besides just plain taking longer to do stuff. The states have a tendency to put the Fast Track horse in front of the Conservation cart, at least when it comes to mining, grazing, logging, and drilling.

    Utah is bad about this. Really bad. Idaho only slightly less so , for different reasons. In some ways worst of all is my own Wyoming, thanks to the blessing /curse of hydrocarbon-rich geology. Wyoming would like to be able to wholesale half a billion years’ worth of homemade fossil hydrocarbon in the next decade, if it could…damn the regulations.

    • avatar Louise Kane says:

      To Cody Coyote…..who said” Having said that , based on my experience and observations, the very LAST folks I want in charge of public lands are my own State Lands Office or state officialdom. Anhone who thinks the state is in a better position to manage land use because they are closer to the lands is a fool. That is the problem , not the solution. The state sees public lands as a cash cow in s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o many ways , and they have a dozen devious ways to lead that cow to slaughter forthwith . The States have far less of a conservation mandate and far more of an extraction manifest destiny than the Feds ever had. They look at public land and only see moneymaking. The Feds are fortunately bound by overarching laws and some fabulous farsighted mandates, besides just plain taking longer to do stuff. The states have a tendency to put the Fast Track horse in front of the Conservation cart, at least when it comes to mining, grazing, logging, and drilling.”

      A perfect analogy could be made substituting wolves and or wildlife for public lands. Your points exemplify some of what is wrong with states managing predators, wolves and most wildlife.

  5. avatar Daniel Berg says:

    Great read for a Monday morning….what a pick-me-up.

    We’re just going to have to fight these battles over public land over and over into perpetuity. These state officials are taking a stab at federal lands that previous generations with similar leanings would have used and abused a hundred times over already had the opportunity been available.

    What disturbs me the most about issues like this is once federal lands fall into state hands, they could be carved up and permanently eliminated as suitable habitat for wildlife, corridors for genetic connectivity, etc…..We have a unique opportunity now to protect lands that can be treasured by dozens of subsequent generations, should we be lucky enough to continue as a viable and stable population for that long.

    I recently came across a letter that was sent out back in the 40’s or 50’s by a handful of communities around Olympic National Park requesting that the size of the park be reduced to open up additional old-growth timber to harvest. Thank god that never went anywhere. Hopefully we can look back at the rural political prostitutes of today and be thankful that the self serving greed of a few individuals wasn’t able to inflict too much damage.

  6. avatar Derek Farr says:

    Leading the philosophical charge for the land grabbers is Professor Robert Nelson (U of Maryland) who compares the science of ecology to Islam, calling it a neo-religion “drawing heavily on earlier Christian messages.”
    If the ecosystem’s a sham, then why protect it? Nelson argues that we should sell off our public lands to pay off our debt.
    Nelson, by the way, is an economist. Just the sort of guy you want managing (or liquidating) your public lands.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Derek Farr,

      While I haven’t heard of him, as an economist what expertise does he have in religion? I could find a passage in the Bible (maybe Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple). Then I could say that “these people have defiled our temples and should be driven from our sacred wild lands!” Then he could say, “see, a religion. You said ‘sacred and temples.'” But I could also say, the economics of selling the public lands to pay off the national debt would serve to concentrate wealth to an even greater extent, and it would hurt the economy and cause unemployment. I did minor in economics at Utah State University.

  7. avatar Dan says:

    Let me start with, I am a “sagebrush patriot” and always will be. Similar to the author, I grew up roaming federal lands knowing no one could push a poor kid off the land. I hiked, hunted and fished as much as I could and today, I would not trade any of it for anything different.
    In many places in Northern Idaho hunters are a very large user group of federal lands. As elk tags become more restrictive and less available, hunters are going to start searching for solutions. Persuasive land grabbers are going to make very compelling arguments against federal control of public lands. For all the reasons listed in this article federal managers would be a far better bet for hunting user groups in the long run, however, I foresee hunters joining state management groups. I believe this is very significant because hunters represent a middle of the road or fence sitting group with a lot of money and influence. The hunting group as a whole are conservationists and vocal about habitat/ecosystem health. It is unfortunate that recent events are pushing the hunters into the hands of the .1%. I think it would be very wise to for environmental/conservation groups to start mending the fences with the hunting crowds. There has to be ways the two groups can start working together again. I hope that my grandkids with be free to roam as I was.

  8. avatar Mike says:

    ++The hunting group as a whole are conservationists and vocal about habitat/ecosystem health.++

    That’s not exactly true.

  9. avatar Dan says:

    In arizona, they are trying to say that we will be able to keep the forests cleaner and have less fires if we let the state control the lands. Hogwash!! this is a landgrab
    for private developers pure and simple. We have a flagstaff mayer that thinks the forests surrounding flagstaff are using too much water! If we get ride of the trees we would have more water for development. Let’s not privatize folks.

    • avatar JB says:

      And after they divide up all of the public land, sell it off, and make their hefty profit, people will realize that there isn’t enough water in the West–especially the Southwest–to support a wasteful human population. The intermountain West simply isn’t a productive landscape. It is far more valuable for the recreation and the ecosystem services it provides than it could ever be as a developed landscape.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey