More than half the West is federally owned. Now some states want that land

October 15, 2013

The federal government owns 52 percent of the land in Western states, according to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service. (Credit: Bureau of Land Management)

The federal government shutdown proves, once again, that states should control public lands within their bounds, Utah’s attorney general says.

“[I]n these days of federal austerity, we assume substantial risk by relying too heavily upon the federal government to fund and administer programs that directly affect us in our businesses and daily lives,” Attorney General John Swallow and Assistant Attorney General Anthony Rampton argue in Salt Lake Tribune op-ed.

It’s hardly a new complaint from Utah, which last year passed a law asking the federal government to hand over about 20 million acres of public lands, which together make up most of the state, by the end of next year.  In light of Supreme Court precedent and the Constitution, that demand was largely an empty threat, the state’s legislative counsel noted at the time.

“[T]hat requirement, and any attempt by Utah in the future to enforce the requirement, have a high probability of being declared unconstitutional,” the state Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel noted in its review.

But that hasn’t stopped Utah and other western states from trying.

The nation’s 13 western states are home to 93 percent of federal land, according to 2010 agency data compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Almost exactly two-thirds of Utah land—66.5 percent—is federally owned, making it second only to Nevada’s 81 percent.

At least seven western states have demanded that the federal government return public lands, according to a March report from the liberal Center for American Progress.

“In the past year, legislatures in seven western states—Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho—have passed, introduced, or explored legislation demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of federal public lands to the states,” CAP researchers wrote at the time. Utah’s bill was introduced by state Rep. Kevin Ivory, who is also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative bogeyman to liberal groups who despise it for its role in influencing and crafting state and local policy.

CAP called such efforts a “losing battle that amounts to little more than political grandstanding,” and Utah’s own legislative analysts argued that the bill’s demand interferes “with Congress’ power to dispose of public lands.” But the federal government shutdown has presented lawmakers with another opportunity to beat the drum and rally support for the idea.

“The last few weeks show Utah can and should have an enhanced role in its citizens’ affairs and in the uses of its land. The long-term public health, safety and economic welfare of Utahns depend on it,” Swallow and Rampton write in their op-ed.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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