Federally owned public lands. (Bureau of Land Management)

They say the federal government stripped them of their land and resources. And they’re not alone.

The occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon may seem like the ravings of a small group of armed activists, but it belongs to a much larger movement in the western United States. Lawmakers in at least 11 states have in recent years explored the possibility of taking back federal land in their own way: through their state legislatures.

Before this weekend’s incident, and before the Cliven Bundy confrontation in Nevada in 2014, there was Utah’s H.B. 148. In 2012, Utah passed that bill into law, requiring the federal government turn over the public lands within the state. The law carried little force — the end-of-2014 deadline for the transfer came and went — but it signified the start of a new chapter in the four-decade fight over Western land.

[What we know about the occupied federal building in rural Oregon]

At the time, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) described it as a necessary step.

“This bill creates a mechanism to put the federal government on notice that Utah must be restored to its rightful place as a co-equal partner,” he said in a signing statement. “The federal government retaining control of two-thirds of our landmass was never in the bargain when we became a state, and it is indefensible 116 years later.”

The father and son ranchers at the center of an Oregon protest at a wildlife refuge are expected to turn themselves in to federal authorities to complete a previous prison sentence. (Reuters)

Proponents of the movement say it’s about local control and taking back what rightly belongs to state residents.

Critics fear that reclaiming public land could become a financial burden for states and may be the first step toward the land being sold off or otherwise losing its protected status.

The fight itself stretches back to the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which confirmed the policy of federal retention of public lands. Since then, lawmakers throughout the West have pushed back against the lack of control over land within their borders, including during the famous “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s and 1980s — a movement that counted Ronald Reagan among its supporters.

[The Oregon occupiers’ land dispute, explained in 9 maps]

The West is uniquely affected by federal control of public lands. The region is home to nearly 93 percent of all federal land, according to 2010 data compiled by the Congressional Research Service. Just over half (52 percent) of all the land within the nation’s 13 Western states is under federal control.

In Nevada, over 80 percent of the land within the state’s borders belongs to the federal government. Utah ranks second, controlling only one-third of the land within its borders. Alaska and Idaho control about three-fifths of the land within their borders, while Oregon ranks fifth, with 47 percent of its land under state control.


Last year, nearly a dozen Western states considered bills related to the issue, ranging from creating committees to study it to requiring the federal government to transfer control of public lands to the states, according to an August report by the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation organization.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) vetoed two bills that asked the federal government to hand over public lands, but signed another that created a committee to study the issue. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) vetoed a similar study-committee bill.

“My position on this issue is crystal clear: I do not support any effort that jeopardizes or calls into question the future of our public lands heritage,” he wrote in a veto letter.

The Nevada legislature passed a bill urging Congress to transfer 7 million acres of federal land to the state — an effort that had the support of several top Nevada Republicans.

“I think most if not all Nevadans, including me, would like to see more of the federal land turned over to the state, for us to manage and care for ourselves,” Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said in an interview with Nevada magazine.

Ammon Bundy used a Facebook video posted Dec. 31 to summon an armed militia to Burns, Ore., by Jan. 2. When they arrived, they took over a federal building. After the protest, Bundy told a reporter why this fight is so important to him. (The Washington Post)

Legislators in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming also proposed related bills last year.

Polling conducted last year by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project found that majorities of voters in each of six Western states — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — view the lands managed by the federal government as belonging to the nation.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the effect of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. It has been updated.

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Republican candidates stay quiet on Oregon standoff

Ben Carson’s claim that the federal government should ‘return’ public land to states