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RBC I For more than a century the western United States has engaged in a debate over federal control of Western lands. This debate, which started early in the 1880s, gained popularity during the 1970s and ‘80s, when President Ronald Reagan declared himself a member of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a group that sought transfer of federal lands (most notably those lands under the management of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management or BLM) to the states.
The debate has high stakes for those living in the western side of the nation, as the federal government currently owns upwards of 640 million acres of natural resource lands, including 192 million acres of Forest Service and 270 million acres of BLM property. Of those lands, more than 75 percent of Forest Service and 99 percent of BLM lands exist in the 12 western states, including Alaska.
Federal encroachment on western lands has a long history.
During the formation of the republic, the 13 original states and federal government agreed that the federal government would hold title of the lands outside of those 13 states. As new states in this vast land were formed, a portion of the land would be transferred to the new state and the remainder would go to the people via land sales and grants.
This plan worked for a while. However, in 1881, with the progressive movement gaining momentum, Congress authorized the president to set aside lands, which caused an uproar and a protest from the west.
Unfortunately for the westerners, their voices were far outnumbered by those in the East and the amount of land to be set aside quickly grew.
This system of federal lands management and ownership was, at its conception, unconstitutional.
Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution contains an “Equal Footing Clause,” which essentially states that all new states entering the union must enter on equal footing to the existing states. Having a massive amount of federally owned property within the border of those new states did not provide them with equal footing.
Similarly, Article I, Section 8 states that the federal government, with permission from the state, may own lands for the purpose of military establishments and other “needful buildings” not exceeding 10 square miles in size. The current ownership of millions of acres by the federal government is very clearly a violation of this section of the Constitution.
State ownership of these lands would have many advantages.
It would allow for better citizen monitoring and increased experimentation with solutions in these lands, which would, over time, improve the health and condition of the land. It would also be a huge gain for local control, bringing accountability down to the impacted areas instead of in the hands of bureaucrats in D.C.
In our state of Colorado, the federal government has shown time and again that it is incapable of dealing with issues of wildfire mitigation and control and illegal drug activity, which could be handled more swiftly and efficiently locally.
The shift in ownership would help free the state from restrictive federal regulations, which limit economic growth and could bring much needed relief from the “economic recovery” that most of the county has yet to experience.
Could the states afford it? It’s hard to know, which is exactly why several states are currently conducting studies to determine just that.
What common sense dictates, however, is that if the heavy, burdensome regulations that currently exist on federal lands were lifted, it would be in the best interest of industries like oil and gas to produce here. The increased production rates would certainly increase tax revenue.
What we do know is that the federal government, currently operating with a debt just over $18 trillion, certainly can’t afford to continue managing the lands.
With Colorado, Utah, Alaska, Montana and Idaho currently exploring the idea of transferring federal lands to states, the idea must be taken seriously. And for the liberty-loving citizens who know that every inch of ground given to federal government is a mile taken in freedoms, it is an idea that should be enthusiastically supported.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jennifer Hill is a freelance writer for the Herald Times. She lives in Rangely and is the daughter-in-law of Rio Blanco County Supervisor Jon Hill.