Public land; states rights vs. federal control

Mar 1, 2013

The battle over land—in this case, public land and who owns it—is as heated as it ever was. At least today, the fights are waged via legislative effort rather than physical conflict.

Feb. 21, the city council of St. George, UT, helped reignite a long-running conflict between the state and the federal government over land ownership. The city council members voiced their support for a nearly year-old Utah House Bill 148 by passing a resolution in support of the law which was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert March 23, 2012. The bill would require the federal government to turn over more than 22 million acres of public land to the state by the beginning of 2015.

Even though the bill was signed, it is still a point of contention with many—including the state attorney general—calling it unconstitutional. Herbert, when he signed it, said it was “a fight worth having.”

“The director of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has more control over our state than the governor,” said Herburt upon signing the bill.

“The federal government retaining control of two-thirds of our land mass was never in the bargain when we became a state, and it is indefensible 116 years later.”

Of the recent St. George City Council resolution, Councilman Jimmie Hughes suggested most of the opposition was based on misunderstanding of the purpose of turning over federal land to state control. Jon Pike, another councilman, reiterated the point that state control was not a matter of exploiting the lands, but rather an issue of local control.

“We’re just saying, ‘give us some local control of these things so we can take care of our state needs.’” Hughes agreed, saying the move would “give us a lot more flexibility.”

Conservation and environmental groups, however, are not convinced by the “local governance is better” arguments. Following the signing of the bill in March 2012, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance—which describes itself as against oil and gas development in Utah’s “redrock wilderness”—outlined numerous issues against the move. Most important to the group was potential damage to wilderness areas, removing lands from usual public use, selling off lands into private holding, and they asserted the bill was unconstitutional.

Of Utah’s roughly 53 million acres of land, the federal government owns almost exactly two-thirds of it at 35 million acres. This is one of the highest levels of federally-owned land in a western state, topped only by Nevada, of which 81 percent—57 million acres—is owned by the government.

Across the country, the federal government owns and manages roughly 635- 640 million acres of land, and many more acres worth of subterranean resources and waterways. Of this land, about 610 million acres are what is most often thought of as “public land.” Federal land ownership is concentrated in the western states

far more than elsewhere. See the History section below for more details and specifics on public land ownership.

In addition to the federally-owned and managed land, the individual western states own roughly 46 million acres of state trust land.

Unlike other public lands, most state lands are held in trust for designated beneficiaries, principally public schools, and are not public land in the strictest sense. State trust land has a similar multiple-use mandate, so leasing of lands for grazing, energy-creation and other uses does occur—with the proceeds being distributed to groups according to specific trusts’ purposes—but there is more specificity involved with each individual trust than with federal public land.

Other states

The long-running Utah land fight is merely one of a number of similar legislative efforts around the western states to gain state control of public lands.

Lawmakers in Idaho are considering similar legislative moves, inspired largely by Utah’s bill. The Idaho Department of Lands recently released a quick analysis which suggests the state could net $50-75 million annually if the federal government turned over 16 million acres of public land to state control. Though Idaho is not known for the oil and mineral richness of Utah, the revenue estimate came largely from the timber harvesting potential.

Currently, the federal government owns 33 million acres of Idaho land, roughly 62 percent of the state. The proposed lands for federal-to-state transfer are comprised of both BLM land and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land.

New Mexico is also among the number of western states pushing for greater control of its land. In late January, House Bill 292— Transfer of Public Lands Act—was put forth to the state’s House by bipartisan sponsors Yvette Herrell, R- District 51, and Richard C. Martinez, D-District 5. The bill demands that the federal government “extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to public lands to the state” excluding national parks, tribal lands, and military lands. Federally-owned New Mexican land amounts to about 35 percent—27 million acres—of the state.

How successful these states and others might be in their efforts to wrest control of their lands from the federal government is unclear. Arizona had several attempts to follow suit with Utah in demanding federal lands be turned over to the state. In May of 2012, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1332, which was based in structure and detail on the Utah bill. Following that, Arizona voters voted down Proposition 120 during the November 2012 election. Proposition 120 would have similarly turned federally-owned lands to state control.


As it stands, the federal government owns roughly 635-640 million acres of land. This represents 28 percent of the total 2.29 billion acres of the U.S and is mostly concentrated in the Pacific and Mountain time zones of the West. Of this amount, roughly 610 million acres are administered by the government for public use by all Americans. The rest of the land is administered by such groups as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Department of Defense for things like tribal lands and military bases.

Federally-owned public land most commonly thought of as “public land” is divided among a number of stewards, each with its own area of jurisdiction. BLM manages 248 million acres, USFS manages 193 million acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages 89 million acres, and the National Park Service (NPS) manages 80 million acres.

Both BLM and USFS have multiple-use, sustained-yield mandates which allow for things like grazing, energy development, recreation and conservation. Most of USFS land is designated as national parks, but still allows for multiple use relevant to cattlemen. FWS and NPS have wildlife conservation motivations and, while some multiple use is allowed, most harvest-related activities are prohibited.

Historically, an overwhelming amount of previously federally-owned lands have been “disposed of” through sales or transfers to P.O. Box 014059 Kansas City, MO 64101 816.842.3757

private holding. Between 1781 and 2010, 816 million acres of government land was transferred to private ownership. Homesteading acts and other government efforts to speed westward expansion had the largest hand in this.

According to a 2012 congressional report, the following are the federal holdings of Western land in order of percentage:

• Nevada, 57 million acres, 81 percent

• Utah, 35 million acres, 67 percent

• Idaho, 33 million acres, 62 percent

• Oregon, 33 million acres, 53 percent

• California, 48 million acres, 48 percent

• Wyoming, 30 million acres, 48 percent

• Arizona, 31 million acres, 42 percent

• Colorado, 24 million acres, 36 percent

• New Mexico, 27 million acres, 35 percent

• Montana, 27 million acres, 29 percent

• Washington, 12 million acres, 29 percent — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor