Will 2015 be the year of the great land grab?

Election results put takers of U.S. public land in a good position?

The 2014 congressional elections put an increased number of supporters and sympathizers of the states taking the public lands of the United States in office. They want the states to take over the national forests, the  BLM lands, maybe the national wildlife refuges, and even some of the national parks.  Even though a 2012 state referendum in Arizona demanding this was voted down two to one, and public opinion surveys show a majority of residents of the Western states (except for Utah residents) are against an ownership change, the political battle is on.

It’s a Republican plan-
Republican office-holders in the interior West say the states should rightfully own these lands. This is a clearly partisan Republican vs. Democrat issue. Transfer of lands to the states was in the Republican platform of several western states. The Republican National Committee also endorsed what Democrats and others are calling “the land grab.” Many of the opponents of the land transfer go on to say  the real goal of the “land grabbers” is not state ownership, but private ownership. They say our public lands are being “seized” and will end up being auctioned off to the “highest bidder” either on purpose or because the states won’t be able to pay to manage these lands.

Historically, public lands have always been federal-
The public lands of the West have always been owned by the United States rather than the states since the time they were purchased from France, taken in war from Mexico, or ceded by Great Britain, ignoring the natives who lived on these lands originally. The politics and history of federal land ownership, past privatizations (under the Homestead Act and other laws), and current management controversies, could fill a lifetime of research. However, the average citizen knows almost nothing about it even though their visits to these lands number about a half billion each year. Public ignorance is fertile ground for making up a false history, one where states got stiffed at statehood.

Statehood and federal land grants to Western states-
Upon statehood, the federal government gave the Western states what many say were generous land grants. In return, the states wrote in their state constitutions that they would not make any further claims for public land. Every state constitution has a disclaimer similar to this one (from Nevada’s): “That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States; . . .”

Western states were granted two sections of land per township. That is two square miles out of every 36 square miles (a township). Ironically, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, where Republican politicians are the hottest for getting federal land, received four sections per township.

There were restrictions on the use to which the states could put the land grants. Revenue generated was to be devoted  to the support of the public schools.  At the time, public schools were a priority of progressive thinkers. The conservatives of that era were fine with having only elite private schools, commercial private academies, religious institutions, and informal education.. It is important to note that now after 80-90 years where public schools were an unchallenged idea, some conservatives are again turning against public education. They are trying to privatize it.

Land transfer advocates argue that the state constitutions are in fact unconstitutional because the would be states were coerced into putting the disclaimer in their state constitutions as a condition of statehood. Those demanding land transfer also rely on the “equal footing doctrine” that every new state admitted to the United States is given the same legal rights as the states already in the Union. These folks say that the presence of large percentages of U.S. land within the state borders makes that state less than the earlier — Eastern and Midwestern — states. Those defending the historic system of public lands say that large acreages of federal land does not violate equal footing doctrine (first adopted by the Supreme Court in 1842).  Equal footing refers to the legal powers and rights of the states, not land ownership distribution. Defenders of the public lands say that they are a great benefit — providing that the public will have freedom of access that Easterners, Midwesterners and Southerners can only dream of.

Selling off the state lands-
After statehood, the states begin to sell off these state lands. For example, Idaho today only retains 2.5 million acres of school endowment land. It had 3.4 million originally. Utah has 3.4 million acres out of its original 7.5 million. Wyoming has retained 3.5 out of its 4.3 million granted. Nevada, however, sold theirs and now has none, but Arizona and New Mexico retain a whopping 9-million acres each. They were given over 10-million acres. Few citizens of these states know this history, but it is vital that they do because there is very little mass support for selling these lands off even among most of those who think state ownership seems like a good idea.

Groups saying state management is better-
Supporters of taking the lands argue that the states will manage them better than the federal government.  The health and productivity of the land will increase, they say. They point to some federal things that their supporters don’t like such as public land ranchers being subject to grazing rules and environmental standards, and the reductions in timbering during the last 20 years so protect wildlife, watershed and scenery.  Some off-road vehicle groups dislike the federal land “travel plans” because they close some trails and areas to vehicles. Oil and gas interests criticize the federal government for not leasing enough land and for having the wrong kind of rules and royalties. Land transfer advocates say the states will not have so many silly restrictions. One thing all these have in common is they think environmental protection is overdone or not needed.

What is state land management like right now?
Despite claims the states will manage the national forests, etc. better, there is little effort outside of Utah to show examples of good state land management. There are millions of acres of state lands.  Examples are not being presented.

A very common fear from almost all sides is that the public will lose its physical access to the big outdoors under state management. Assurances are made that this is not the case, but current examples point in other directions. For example, take Wyoming. In the Cowboy State the law prohibits public camping on state school lands. The holder of a grazing lease on Wyoming state lands can even determine whether hunters and anglers can use the land.  Idaho has gone out of the way to point out that the state lands, the state school lands, are not public lands in any common sense of the word. Instead they are lands devoted to producing maximum revenue for the public schools. This is legally true for all the western state lands, except for state parks which are in a different category. Maximum revenue generation pits against the land manager’s consideration of the entire spectrum of land uses and users, which federal public land managers must do.

Actual revenue from state lands today-
All of the western states are supposed to general maximum revenue for the public schools, and all of them do indeed usually generate net revenue off the state lands. The revenue comes primarily from timber sales and various kinds of leases, especially oil and gas leases. State land grazing, like federal land grazing, is always a poor revenue performer, contributing little and often coming up a loss. Nonetheless, like federal land, grazing is the most common extensive use of state lands in the West. As with federal land grazing, state land grazing fees are set below the fair market value of the forage, although all of the state’s grazing fees are higher than the mere token $1.35 per AUM (animal unit for a month) that the federal government charges its lucky grazing permittees.

Public land ranching somehow is always subsidized, whether state or federal.

Utah’s attempt to take the federal lands-
Utah is the only state where a public opinion poll has shown a majority (small) in favor of the state’s taking the U.S. public lands.  Utah has tried to get serious about raised more state land revenue by aggressively seeking to consolidate its land holdings into blocks. It has more than quadrupled the amount of state land revenue since the mid 1990s. Serious land management is difficult, however, when most of the lands are isolated one square mile sections of a township.

Two years ago, Utah passed the “Transfer of Public Lands Act.” This is a demand that the United States give up most of the public lands in Utah by the end of 2014.  U. S. public lands are more than half of the land area in Utah. The law came from template legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), commonly said to be the one of the Koch Brother’s most important political organizations. Many large large corporations belong to ALEC, especially energy industry companies.  ALEC has a great deal of ready-to-go_right-off-the-shelf already written laws designed to restrict voting rights, reduce worker’s rights, give comfort and aide to polluters, restrict the public’s right to know, and the like.

The just released report-
Aside from demanding the transfer of the lands, this Utah state law saw that a group of  economists from three state universities (University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State University) analyze the economic feasibility of state management of these federal lands. After a year-and-a-half they have just released their thick report (more than 700 pages). It is “An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah”. Download it. The report concludes that Utah government might just do better than break even managing these lands. This is important because critics have argued the transfer would put the state in a deep fiscal hole. The report says this happy conclusion (for the state) is true even when accounting for wildfires. In Utah currently, wildfires are paid for 97% by the federal government, according to the report.  However, the whole state land ownership enterprise would depend on massive revenues from oil and natural gas production. These royalties are now split between the state, federal government, and the tribes. The federal government gets the lion’s share. The federal government would absolutely have to transfer the mineral rights as well as the surface of the U.S. public lands to Utah. Otherwise, there would be no new oil or gas revenues. Finally, because the oil and gas revenue is critical, success or failure depends on the price of oil and gas.

The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper just editorialized on this. Dec. 2. Editorial: Land transfer would tie Utah’s future to oil. The Tribune is skeptical, and asks why take the risk when the federal government makes sure the is no state fiscal risk now?  The answers are probably various, but likely chief among them are based on conservative ideology and the assurance that culturally and politically powerful groups will continue to prevail, e.g., ranchers.

What about other western states?
Assuming the report is accurate and honest, would this route work for other states? Idaho might be an example. Many Idaho state politicians are pumping for Idaho too, to take control of the federal lands. It is easy to see this will not fly fiscally. Over 62 % of Idaho is U.S. public land, but unlike Utah it almost entirely lacks energy minerals.  Worse for those who want to see the state own these lands, Idaho has more expensive wildfires than Utah. These fires are likely to get worse too, except that most conservatives live in a world where they think the climate is not changing. There are some good timber growing sites in northern Idaho, and a few in Western Idaho, but logging will not generate enough revenue to make state management break even. There are just not enough good timber growing sites even though much of the national forest land in Idaho is generally covered with conifers.  The core of the state — central Idaho — is underlain by infertile granite and granite derived soils. The growth rate of these seems almost geologic. The early day great forests of northern Idaho did make much money as they were stripped of the big trees and most valuable species. What remains tends to be lodgepole pine growing slowly out of the rock.  So there is a reason why almost two-thirds of Idaho is U.S. public land today. Most of these public lands are too high, or dry, rough, steep, or cold to generate real money timbering or grazing, although they can be great for outdoor recreation.

Timbering and grazing on the big majority of federal lands in Idaho have long been supported by federal subsidies. Idaho is a state with much congressionally designated wilderness area, but on the other hand, much of the once wild country that got developed in Idaho was also the result of the federal government though subsidization of development that would otherwise not have been undertaken.

What about non energy minerals? There are the vast Eastern Idaho phosphate fields, but capturing these revenues would be a major political feat and legal victory over the current lease-holders. Metallic minerals are, of course, governed by the 1872 mining act. That means they are subject to patent, do not pay royalties, and neither the state nor the federal government gets revenue from this kind of mining activity.

What about America?
Some of the rest of the Western states could conceivably wrest out enough natural resource to avoid too big a loss and maybe make a surplus. Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado have energy production on public lands. Recreation generates revenue right now. Perhaps under state ownership resorts could be charged heavy fees. All outdoor recreation could be made subject to expensive passes and fees.

However, those favoring the historic way things have done in this country say “why change what we have today?” The public lands are the birthright of every American, and those in Idaho own the Utah red rock canyons just as much as those in Utah. Those in Utah also own the Mojave Desert public lands and the redwoods on the national forests in California. Those in Oregon own Yellowstone Park just as much as those in Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana. Why reduce these joint benefits to only those in the states?

The purpose of having a large and wealthy nation is that all the citizens can share in the largess. What would be gained by dumping federal lands on the Idaho taxpaying citizen? It seems the “benefit” would be to live in federal free poverty and pay a big fee to visit the former public lands of Utah and other states.

Citizens of every state can ask the same about public land transfer and many other proposals to let the states do what are now national programs on their own. Are we the United States assembled for our common domestic good, or do we just pool some resources so we can conduct foreign military operations?




  1. Leslie Avatar

    Thank you Ralph for this excellent article and review. In Wyoming, the State Parks are heavily restricted. People should know that if Wyoming were to take over recreational use lands, fees would be required. I was traveling through Wind River Canyon and we stopped for 5 minutes in a dirt pull-out under high tension wires by the dam in order to grab our lunches from the back of the car. Not exactly a nice lunch spot. A patrol car pulled up within minutes and was ready to give us a ticket and fine for stopping on state park lands without the $7 sticker on our car that had to be previously purchased. It required a lot of talking and explaining that we were not picnicking in this lousy location, but stopping for a 5 minute break. They reluctantly let us go.

    That is my perfect example of what happens when states take over land for recreational use. In California, if you want to camp at Samuel P. Taylor State park for the night, plan on spending about $35-$40/night for just a campsite.

    States taking back Federal Lands would be, to paraphrase Ken Burns, “America’s Worst Idea”!

    1. Loren Nelson Avatar

      Leslie – you are exactly right. Take-over of any public lands by the state of Wyoming would be a disaster.

  2. Louise Kane Avatar
    Louise Kane

    “Citizens of every state can ask the same about public land transfer and many other proposals to let the states do what are now national programs on their own. Are we the United States assembled for our common domestic good, or do we just pool some resources so we can conduct foreign military operations?”

    excellent Ralph

    Just because Utah demands and wants federal lands does not mean the US federal government must cede them. This would be tantamount to a 30 year old educated parent allowing a small child to take what it wants every time it has a tantrum. Not good for the child or those that have to suffer the child.

    1. skyrim Avatar

      I’ve begun to see some television spots by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance addressing the issue. SUWA has, up to this point, been a bit tardy in it’s opposition to this matter, but I’ve not been paying the attention that I should have been.
      We’ve now lost the lone Democratic Congressional voice (not that it mattered much) we have had, so there is the associated fear that one would expect.

  3. Nancy Avatar

    “or do we just pool some resources so we can conduct foreign military operations?”


    Could you please go into a bit more detail about that last part of the above paragraph? Thanks.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I will elaborate on that.

      The preamble to the U. S. Constitution reads: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [boldface mine].

      National defence is only one reason the government the Constitution created exits. “Promote the general welfare” very strongly suggests that the federal government in addition to defense, does things to help improve its constituent states beyond their own efforts. I would think that various national systems, such as national parks and national forests, will generally be done better than average states. A few of the more wealthy states might do better than the feds. California had a very nice state park system, for example, but the great recession led to the closures of quite a few of them and the curtailment of others.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        Thank you Ralph.

        Posted earlier on another thread by Scott Slocum:

        Scott Slocum says:

        December 6, 2014 at 7:18 pm

        Here’s an opportunity to comment, for the record, on H.R. 4435: the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015: https://www.popvox.com/bills/us/113/hr4435

        I have to wonder what the hell does public lands grazing have to do with National Defense? Maybe I’m just getting to old to understand how complicated slick politicians are at making and passing legislation these days. Tucking it here or there, hoping most of us don’t notice……til its too late.

        1. Louise Kane Avatar
          Louise Kane

          The non germane rider

  4. Loren Nelson Avatar

    An article that everyone should read carefully.

    Elections have consequences and not all are obvious. Our public lands need to be preserved for all Americans not just to fill the coffers of state and local governments.

  5. Yvette Avatar

    ALEC held a meeting in D.C. this past week. We can only guess as to the bills that were handed over to the bought and paid for representatives.

    The ‘land grab’ by states is not popular with its citizens, but it looks like the states conservative politicians have just been getting warmed up. The lack of citizen support will probably not matter to them. I expect ALEC will have ‘model bills’ ready to send back with state lawmakers.

    What is truly driving this campaign? Most likely, it is the oil & gas industry.

    Great article, Ralph. This one needs to be shared far and wide.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar
      Louise Kane

      I think we are seeing legislators that act less and less on behalf of their constituents. In fact they seem to act in defiance of them, and they get away with it now as elections are bought and sold by the highest corporate donators. We vote them in but then they pay homage to the real money. It’s taken a worse turn in the last two SC decisions.

  6. don Avatar

    In Oregon, BLM managed public forest lands (in the western — mostly southwestern part of the state) are the subject of legislation in the House/Senate. Oregon Congressmen DeFazio (D) and Walden (R) have introduced legislation that would, among other things, turn the management of some of these forests over to a committee that would apply state forestry rules/regulations, to dramatically reduce the ability of the public to have a say in managing these forests.

    In the Senate, Ron Wyden has introduced competing legislation that softens the House bill by maintaining federal regs, such as NEPA. Widens bill is now considered on it’s deathbed due to the Republican’s takeover of the Senate.

    As a news article (link below) suggests, the House bill likely will pass now that the Republicans control the Senate. According to an aide from Congressman Walden:

    “You’re going to see a lot of members from Western states who are interested in reforming federal forest policy – Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado – and they’re going to have positions of influence.”

    I suspect that it may go much further than this, in that some western states may see this as opening the door for them to seek similar legislation that squeezes out public involvement (including the right to litigate) – and maybe take it a step further. From their perspective, if Oregon can do it, why not these states too?

  7. don Avatar

    Here is the link (which I’d intended to include with my comment above):


  8. snaildarter Avatar

    In Europe and most of the rest of the world there are no public lands and only the rich get to see and use the natural areas. Here the States have a terrible track record of protecting wildlife. This potential disaster reminds be of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch where the army guarded the last 300 Bison in Yellowstone National Park.
    Surely the American people will not let them take us back to the bad old days.

  9. larry thorngren Avatar

    The Idaho State Land Board is actively trading isolated state sections of land to the USFS for USFS land on West Mountain overlooking Cascade Reservoir south of the Tamarack Ski Area.
    They hope to make money by leasing this land to private development similar to what they do with state land at the Tamarack resort and the state lands surrounding Payette Lake near McCall.

  10. larry thorngren Avatar


    The Idaho constitution requires the sale of leased state lands by public auction if there are two or more applicants for the lease. Most of the state lands of any value will eventually be sold to private interests under this procedure.
    Any USFS and BLM land taken over by the state of Idaho would be subject to this procedure and would, over time, become privately held.

      1. larry thorngren Avatar

        If the states get ownership of federal public lands, southern Idaho will eventually become Simplotistan.

  11. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    When I saw the title of the article I thought it reffered to Federal Land Grab. Taking our private lands.

  12. WiZaRd Of The Wolf Nation Avatar
    WiZaRd Of The Wolf Nation

    These riders are not in the interest
    of the American people, the nation,
    nor for our Earth and all of Nature’s
    majestic wonders!!
    What these politicians are doing
    is a fragrant act of treason!!

    1. Nancy Avatar

      A dated but excellent article on the subject, Timz:


      “Why? Because they don’t want the responsibility, the burden, or the expense of their maintenance and management, which the feds would then quit paying for. They would also lose the massive variety of federal subsidies they now receive”


  13. JoAnne Anderson Avatar
    JoAnne Anderson

    Do you really want your legacy to be the annihilation of wildlife and loss of public land?!?! How will you stand in front of our children, and explain what you did?!?!

  14. Kyle Gardner Avatar
    Kyle Gardner

    Thanks for the excellent analysis Ralph! Common threads running through the “transfer” argument are: 1) ignoring the facts of public lands history; 2) providing no evidence that federal management is “one-sized fits all” and therefore inadequate; 3) providing no evidence that any state can manage public lands better than the federal government; 4) inflating the degree of public support for a transfer; 5) concealing the reality that the ultimate goal of this proposal is to completely remove any and all barriers to continued exploitation of the landscape; and, 6) ignoring the argument that the public lands are part of our birthright as Americans. The proposal is a complete sham and those supporting it are engaging in a crass effort to destroy the system of public lands management and ultimately the land itself.

  15. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    I like this editorial cartoon from the Salt Lake Tribune. I think it says it all concerning two recent articles I wrote. One was on the falling price of oil. The other about the Utah state government’s attempt to seize our public lands.


    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      What’s happening in this country (and the world) is becoming truly nightmarish. Selling off our land and wildlife to the last tree and rock and animal, police killing people in the streets, CIA torture.