The Folly of ‘Taking Back’ Federal Lands

States gave up their rights to the land when they joined the union—the land they did get, they’ve typically exploited.

Do 700 million acres of national parks, national monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management units belong to you and your fellow Americans? No, according to the increasingly popular notion in the West that it’s time for states to “take back” federal land.

“Taking back” property of Alaskans and Floridians and everyone between is even a plank in the GOP platform. A resolution, entitled “In Support of Western States Taking Back Public Lands” reads: “The Republican National Committee calls upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the imminent transfer of public lands to all willing Western states.”

Taking back something that never belonged to you presents multiple problems, not the least of which is semantics. But this has never discouraged proponents whose first order of business is to ignore constitutional law.

Here’s a fact they don’t want you to know: As a condition for entering the union, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and Nevada disclaimed all legal right and title to unappropriated public lands.

Nevertheless, in 2015 state lawmakers in the West introduced 37 grossly unconstitutional bills promoting seizure of lands belonging to all Americans. Utah’s Legislature has gone so far as to appropriate $2 million supposedly to oversee the land grab. And a commission of Utah legislators has voted to spend $14 million suing the federal government for control of public lands.

The bills and litigation can’t possibly succeed, but that’s not their intent. They’re designed as messages to the U.S. Congress. That’s where the danger lies.

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The messages are getting through. Last February Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, introduced the “Federal Land Freedom Act of 2015,” which would transfer to the states management of energy production on millions of U.S. acres.

In March the House and Senate passed a joint nonbinding resolution to help states seize and sell America’s public lands. The same month Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, introduced a bill that would authorize his state to sell your land.

Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced legislation in 2014 that would have prohibited the federal government from owning more than half the land within one state.

On the stump in Nevada last June, presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, drew thunderous applause when he declared: “I’d either sell or turn over all the land management to the states.”

Leading the ovation, and granted a private audience by Paul, was take-back-the-West folk hero Cliven Bundy, who has intentionally trespassed his cattle on BLM range for more than two decades, amassing $1 million in unpaid grazing fees (almost four times more than the 16,000 other BLM grazing leasers combined). In March 2014, when BLM agents finally mustered the resolve to impound Bundy’s cattle, he summoned a 300-man “militia” that ran them off at gunpoint. They then returned the cattle. Neither Bundy nor his militia has been prosecuted.

The Department of Homeland Security had it right when it warned that Bundy’s “perceived success likely will embolden other militia extremists.” Jerad and Amanda Miller attended Bundy’s felonious standoff and spewed support for his cause on Facebook and YouTube (getting “likes” from the National Rifle Association, Rand Paul, and Ron Paul). Three months later the couple shot to death two cops and a civilian in Las Vegas. Then, on January 2, 2016, an armed militia, led by Bundy’s sons Ammon, Ryan and Mel, broke into and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Building in Oregon, vowing to kill anyone who jailed two arsonists convicted of purposely setting fire to BLM land where they’d poached deer. (The Bundy sons are in jail, one person is dead, 11 are under arrest, and four mlitants are still holding the refuge.)

Anyone who wonders what Western states would do with U.S. land should consider what they’ve already done with it. In exchange for relinquishing all claims on public property, new states were awarded “trust lands.” Trust lands have generally been used to create revenue via oil and gas extraction, logging, mining, and outright sale.

For example, of Nevada’s original 2.7 million acres of trust land only 3,000 acres remain. In Colorado you can fish and camp on virtually all federal land and hunt on most. But you can’t hunt, fish or camp on most state land because it’s reserved for extractive industry.

The attempted heist of your land in the West is about one thing only-private profiteering. If it succeeds, it will mean no-trespassing signs and death to much of your fish and wildlife.

This story appeared on High Country News. Photo by Jim Stanger.

Ted Williams is the conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine.
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Showing 12 comments
  • Steve

    Sums it all up very nicely. I wish more people would read this.

  • Nick

    Thank you for this. I don’t know why this is so hard for people to understand. Federal land is public land, which means, you guessed it, for the public. Not for mining or drilling or grazing, where the average citizen of this country would have zero access to said land. Education is this country sure seems to be failing us. Oh, and I believe schools are mostly run by states and counties, the holy grail of efficiency to some people.

  • Elbee

    As always just follow the money. It is about the money.

    Its not about freedom or injustice. If we gave back the lands to the states, then what about giving it back to the native americans??

  • Ric Walters

    I’m just glad that Texas never gave up our lands to the feds, although BLM is trying to grab land that’s not theirs anyway.

    The real shame of this is that the idea of a state trying to finance its operations through those horrible “extractive” industries is portrayed as evil. Unless all the hikers, bikers, fishermen, hunters, etc. in the country are willing to pony up enough money to help states survive (and no, hunting and fishing licenses don’t come close), exactly how would those of you who oppose states retaking land suggest that they fund the services you need them to? I’m no big fan of many of those extractive industries, either, but let’s look at it from a realistic financial perspective, folks. Mining and drilling pay a lot of taxes that recreational uses cannot generate.

    Let’s be realistic and stop villainizing those who pay our way.

    • Dan

      Ric, you make two interesting points, although unintentionally. First, Texas is a horrible example when referring to public lands. Texas has very little “public land” spread over a huge state. Ever been to the western states? Not nearly as many fences,barbed wire, no trespassing signs, or crazy shotgun wielding paranoia. Second, you illustrate perfectly how many see this issue as only a financial issue, instead of an economic or even a human rights issue.
      Treating public land as only a financial resource is fiscally short sighted, precisely the point you failed to gather from the article.

      • Brandon

        Ric, you say “stop villainizing those who pay our way.” You are suggesting that its ok to pay our way when times are tough by transforming public protected land to private land and therefore generating revenue. Well I’m pretty sure we haven’t found a way to make more land so I think you see where this is going. Dan made a clear point that treating public land as only a financial resource is fiscally short sighted.

  • Zach

    “Taking back something that never belonged to you presents multiple problems, not the least of which is semantics.”

    Also not the least of which was the genocide of millions of native peoples, who never made a claim of ownership (by the Western world’s definition) on any land – even in treaty agreements that were later broken. As Elbee astutely notes, the definition of “give and take” – or even in the case of fair and public use – depends a lot on your perspective. I think Native Americans would have argued the land doesn’t need to be “owned” by anyone to do things like hunt, fish or hike.

    And this article seems to ignore the fact that federally held lands are profiteered by resource gobbling corporations as well. Take a look at the timber companies pillaging Mark Twain National Forest in the Ozarks through the National Forest Service and tell me I’m wrong. Federally held (or more appropriately “managed”) lands are subject to the same abuses as those held by the state.

  • Zach


    You make a fair point here (one which I did not see until after I had posted my own), but I think the numbers make a stronger case.

    I can’t speak for Texas, so I won’t – but in Missouri the economic impact of outdoor recreation accounts for $4 billion annually while forest products, for instance, count for $8 billion. I’m sure if you added the EI of mineral resources from Missouri’s lead and limestone producers alone that $8 billion would skyrocket.

    However, in a state where the fiscal budget was $27 billion, I don’t think $4B – or nearly 15 percent of that – is anything to sneeze at. $8 billion, or more, is certainly a much larger slice of the pie and one we would miss sorely if it were to go away – but I think that’s part of an intangible argument here: the resources that can be extracted WILL go away eventually because demand is outpacing supply and re-supply, and with that will go the companies that depend on those raw materials for profit and sustaining operations.

    I think the long term answer for achieving both economic survival and biological balance is going to require that the extractors take a harder look at building a sustainable business model for themselves rather than mine, cut, etc. their way out of existence. If they’re allowed to run amok over the land currently being used by recreation types, we lose BOTH pieces of that pie.

  • Steve

    @Ric – we all own the federal lands now. Some are leased for “evil extraction”,which helps the federal government pay for things. So transferring those lands to the individual states would help a state balance its budget, but then the federal budget which all the residents of the US pay into, would be unbalanced. That doesn’t fix the problem that we just all need to pay more taxes to cover the cost of the state and federal government supplying the services we want and need to run a country (or we ask for less from the government and let them run on a lower budget)

    What about land that the federal government don’t currently lease out? Sure, leasing that out would create extra income, be it for a state or federal government. The sooner that starts, to sooner it’ll run down to the point of not being economic. The land has been protected for hundreds of years, so I don’t see why my generation should be the ones to lower our taxes by extracting resources from it and leaving my descendants less. I’m no more important than them.

    This still boils down to the fact that right now we all own federal land. Some is protected, some is “managed”. The states can’t afford to ‘accept back’ the land and protect it, as that costs money. So the only thing they’ll be able to do is lease it for extraction or sell it. I see no logical reason to do that. I love the outdoors, and if I can’t use them because a mining company has the rites to them (and pays a few percent back to the state), then there is no point in me living near them. The politicians will get jobs on the boards of the mining companies when they retire, the mining companies will make money and create all manner of environmantal damage (drilling water pumped into aquifers, tailings ponds and dams, methane releases, cyanide releases …)

    Think of it this way, in 500 years the oil and minerals will be worth way more, and our descendants will be living it up in a US version of Dubai on all the money the state makes.

  • Lancelot

    Great article. I am interested in what I/we can do to help? Call your state and federal representatives. Share this story and talk about it with friends or strangers. If people have other suggestions, I would love to hear them, too. Thanks.

  • john Gibspon

    One thing recreationists and environmentalist can do is to support an excise tax on the purchase of such things as tents, binoculars,spotting scopes and many other item purchased primarily for recreation use. We hunters and fishermen already live with such a tax and are proud to realize we are helping to pay our way.

    • Dan

      Is collecting excise tax really paying your way, and are you proud of it? Brilliant idea: Instead of just mining the earth and harvesting the forests, we can extract money directly from people to pay for things they already own! Oh wait, we already do that, and where has this type of thinking gotten us?

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