The Fight to Keep Our Public Lands Public: 5 Questions with Randy Newberg

Randy Newberg has been working hard to educate the public about the threats to our public lands.
Photo courtesy Randy Newberg

Over the past few weeks, sportsmen and women have become increasingly aware of a long-standing effort by Western lawmakers to have ownership of public lands transferred from the federal government to the states. First, the new Congress kicked off its session by passing rules that would make it easier to transfer lands to the states. Then, on January 24, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced two bills that sent shock waves through the outdoors community. The disingenuously named Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act (H.R. 621) called for the disposal of some 3.3 million acres of Bureau of Land Management property “deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers.” Even more chilling, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act (H.R. 622) would strip the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service of law-enforcement authority, giving that power to “local law enforcement.” After the sporting community—anglers, hunters, hikers, and other recreation groups—flooded Washington with phone calls, emails, and letters, Chaffetz withdrew H.R. 621, but he left H.R. 622 on the books.

One sportsman who has been beating the drum to rally his fellow outdoorsfolk to resist the Land Transfer movement is Randy Newberg, of Bozeman, Montana. Over the past few years, Newberg has become “the voice of the public-land hunter in the America.” Newberg is the host of two TV shows, a popular podcast, and an online forum, all of which he has used to advocate for public access to public lands. His 16-part YouTube series on Public Land Transfer is an in-depth look at the forces behind the movement, the tactics that they employ, and how we can resist. Included here are the first four and the final two episodes, which together offer a great introduction to the issues and primer on what each of us can do to maintain control of the lands we use to fish, hike, and hunt. The middle episodes are a state-by-state breakdown of how much land has already been lost.

Randy graciously agreed to respond to a few questions to help educate our audience on this important issue, which is something that all outdoor enthusiasts need to pay attention to. For those who want to go more in-depth, I highly recommend watching all 16 videos.

1. What kind of lands are we talking about? National Parks and Monuments?
The folks pushing disposal/sale/transfer want all federal lands, other than National Parks, to be transferred to state land boards. That includes Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation. These are the places most of us hunt and fish.

Looking out my back door, it means the Gallatin National Forest, Beaverhead National Forest. It means many of the BLM boat ramps on the Madison River. In Wyoming, it means all the BLM lands where I’ve chased antelope and the boat landings on the North Platte.

In Colorado, it means the Frying Pan and Animas Rivers. In Idaho, you think of the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater. The list goes on and on.

One does not have to think very long to craft a long list of places we’ve all hunted, fished, camped, hiked that would now be under control of state land boards, which are very boastful that their lands “Are not Public Lands.”

2. Why does it matter who owns the land? What’s the difference between federal and state ownership?
Who owns the land has so many different consequences. First off, as federal lands, we all own them, whether you live in Bozeman or Philadelphia. These lands have been acquired and maintained by all Americans, not just us who live nearby.

Beyond the basic principle of equity and disenfranchisement mentioned above, one needs to understand how state land boards operate in the West, why they were formed, and the constitutional and statutory mandates that force these lands to be managed far differently than federal lands.

State land boards were created to hold lands that the Western states received at statehood, for the purpose of funding schools. Each state was granted two, three, or four of the thirty-six sections (640 acres is a section) of each Township. It was expected that western states would hold those lands in trust, for the benefit of the school systems, and manage those lands for a return to augment tax revenues.

Some states have tried hard to manage those lands through leasing of minerals, grazing, timber, and other resources. Other states have relied on the liquidation model of converting those land assets to cash. Nevada has sold over 90% of its state lands, Oregon over 50%. Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, and Colorado have all sold more than a third.

Besides land sales, many of these state land boards restrict, or prohibit, activities we outdoors people engage in for free on federal lands. Let’s use Colorado as an example. You cannot hunt, fish, shoot, hike, camp, or in any other way use State Trust Land, unless you are the holder of the land lease. Imagine then, taking the 23 million acres of BLM and Forest Service lands in Colorado and handing them over to the Colorado State Land Board. In that one stroke of a pen, Americans would lose hunting, fishing, shooting, camping, hiking, (insert recreation activity here) rights on 23 million acres, whereas they currently enjoy those activities, mostly without restriction, in Colorado.

Other states have varying degrees of prohibition. Most require some sort of fee for use. Arizona goes so far as to warn on the State Land Board website that if you are walking your dog on State Trust Lands, you are trespassing.

Many people are under the impression that Western state land boards operate the same as in their state when lands are held by a Department of Natural Resources or State Game and Fish Agency. I think my examples above illustrate how different it is.

3. Who are the driving forces behind the land-transfer movement? Is this just politics?
The forces behind the land-transfer movement can be traced back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ’80s. At that time, many participants blatantly stated that their goal was liquidation of the Federal lands via sale. Because this effort failed, they now have a more nuanced marketing plan called “State Transfer.”  They know the track record of Western state land boards in selling lands, so they see these land boards as another means to their goal.

It is just politics, with politics being a game of debts owed and debts to be collected. In this case, many want to use the public lands of America as the currency for squaring up their political debts.  One does not have to dig too far into the details of groups promoting this cause to see who is backing it. Mostly, it is individuals who want these lands for their own, or individuals tied to corporations and industries who view us public land owners as obstructionists to their goals.

In a large part, this is history repeating itself all over again, 110 years later. When Theodore Roosevelt assumed the Presidency following the death of William McKinley, he was quickly chastised for his conservation positions and efforts to increase the public estate. Against great financial and political powers, he and a few determined hunters and anglers saved the day and instilled a conservation ethic that America holds as a badge of honor today.

Now, here we are, with the same forces leveraging their political power to try accomplish what their predecessors could not. Whether or not they succeed this time will again be heavily influenced by hunters and anglers.

4. What do sportsman really have to lose?
Since sportsmen and women are Americans, they stand to lose a huge part of what makes America so special. These public lands are part of our identity, part of our economy, and a large part of our culture.

When you lose your lands, or access to those lands, or they become so impaired as to be worthless–a loss that cannot be measured in numbers. Each person reading this has a different, yet common connection to these lands. These lands have a different meaning to each person in this audience. Yet, as different as all those connections and meanings might be, there is no doubt a commonality as to how powerful that connection is.

Those are losses that are hard to quantify.  Yes, we can put numbers on acres sold, miles of river now inaccessible, economic losses to the multi-billion-dollar outdoor industry. But to lose a part of your culture is a loss too great to explain.

5. What can I, as an individual, actually DO about this?
That is one of the most common questions I get. And when I give an answer, it almost sounds like a ninth-grade civics lesson. And to some degree, it is.

First, be informed. To be an effective advocate, you must have your facts straight. Learn all you can about these different types of State and Federal agencies. Learn the history of how lands became public and how Western state have squandered much of what they were given at statehood.

Second, be a leader. We all have a group of people we influence, whether family, friends, co-workers, or people who share our love of the outdoors. Make sure they know what is at stake, what is being proposed by these Western legislators, and how they can be of help.

Third, join in. There are many groups doing great work on this issue. Groups who are opposing this sale of public lands that have direct ties to anglers and hunters are Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. All of these groups could use your support, even if that support is just a letter of encouragement. And if you belong to other groups, find out where they stand. If that group is apathetic, get them engaged in the discussion.

Fourth, contact your elected leaders. Not just in DC, but in State Legislatures, County Commissions, and any other elected body. When you contact Congress, call if you can; it is more effective than emails. If you know an elected official, or if you know someone who knows someone, use those relationships to make this a personal topic with you and that elected official.

A former Chief of Staff at a congressional office explained it to me this way:

If we get one call, I let the staffer handle it. Probably not worth the Senator’s time. If we get five calls on the same topic, I assigned a staffer who specializes in that arena to give me a report. If we got a dozen calls, I personally investigated the issue. Two dozen calls and I start developing a position statement for the Senator and scheduling meetings back home with people concerned about the topic.

Conservation of land, water, and access is never comfortable or convenient. We don’t get to pick when and where conservation opportunities arise. We don’t get to select the threats or when and where those threats will come from. Rest assured, they will come at inconvenient times, and advocating for the land, water, access, and wilderness will come with serious discomfort, often times pitting us against friends and peers. Yet, in a planet racing toward 8 billion people, it is incumbent on us to hold the line for fish and wildlife and all it needs.There is no backup. There are no replacements. We are it.

As Roosevelt said, “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will.”  Never have those words held more meaning than today.  We will stand, we will speak, and we will hold the line.

For more information, check out the Randy Newberg, Hunter website.

21 thoughts on “The Fight to Keep Our Public Lands Public: 5 Questions with Randy Newberg”

  1. Government closest to the People is always best for the People. This is a Principle that you can not refute. That said, if your concern is corruption, we already have it, in spades. Harry Reid comes to mind. While the risks are real, at some point, we have to start having belief, faith and confidence in each other. Outdoor Person’s, Sportspersons, those who use and care for and pay for the land, waters and wildlife, in each and every State are a huge constituency. It BELONGS to them. Yes, we all want a piece of it, but the facts remain that they belong to each and every State that has them. I believe in my fellow Countrymen and Women, will some make mistakes ? More than likely, they’re human. Will they figure it out and make it work, I have no doubt. It is in everyone’s best interest that we decentralize as much as we can from the Federal Government, shrink it, reduce it, make it less convoluted and corrupt. Keep these types of issue s with the people who own them and the ones who are on the front lines and in my opinion know best. The potential benefits outway the risks.

  2. I whole heartedly agree with Randy, but for a broader range of reasons. I’m not a truster of politicians. I’d rather keep the public land management issue visible at the national level than have the deals go underground. Greed and self interest love dark rooms. There are far more of them at the state level, no matter which state you live in. Oversight is needed to limit the harm of those who put themselves before everyone else, with no conscience regarding their wake.

  3. I fully agree with Randy and thank him for his efforts! Also, I want to thank Orvis for it’s efforts in supporting this and making it visible through Orvis News! Preserving Federal Land is important to our future generation, wildlife, fisheries and current state economies! It goes beyond hunting and fishing as it also includes most of the ski areas of the west and what is left of the american rancher. We must fight this to the end as once gone, we will never get it back!

  4. Nevada has sold 90% of its State Lands. Oregon over 50%.
    Federal Lands are Federal Lands – belonging to people of all States. Why transfer them to States who may well sell them off to private interests (like Nevada and Oregon have done) when our need for public lands gets greater with every generation we want to enjoy the Outdoors than enriched out lives.

  5. This is a difficult subject, with strong opinions on both sides. Randy makes some great points that are absolutely correct. However, there is another side to the issue as well. First, not all Federal Land is open for public use. The NTTR for example (which includes Area 51) is off-limits to the public, and is bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Second, the Federal government owns nearly 50% of the land in the West, and over 80% of the land in Nevada. How much land should the government own? Who should get to decide how it is used? These are questions that can be addressed in civil society.

    As a hiker and fisherman, I want to see public lands preserved. I know that if we open up disbursement of unused Federal land to the states, it will be like a breach in a dam, and it may not stop until prime outdoor recreation areas have been lost forever. On the other hand, what could the people of Nevada do if they were able to use more than the current 15% fragment of land in their state to start businesses, run farms, and grow their economy? The United States has a valuable heritage of both public property ownership AND private property ownership.

  6. FYI, there is not constitutional reason or backing for any transfer away from federal ownership. It’s not like after 240+ years we all of a sudden questioned the constitutionality of federal public lands, that idea has been continuously upheld in the courts, despite what current, self-proclaimed, “constitutional scholars” argue. The US federal gov’t legally acquired the lands through standard procedures outlined in the constitution (i.e. Treaties). And all States at statehood signed an enabling act which states they relinquish all rights to federal public lands. To grossly paraphrase: If you want to be part of the US, and have the US Cavalierly protect your wagons from Indians and grizzlies, then you’d best leave public lands alone.

    FYI CHrisinVA, watch to Newberg’s video on Nevada. The State was originally granted more lands, but decided that it would prefer to hand pick the lands than get more lands (the only State that got such a deal). And as a side note, the entire state was available for free to private owners during the homestead days. What is left is the land so dry that people couldn’t make a living on it.

  7. Let them know how we feel
    Jason Chaffetz Town Hall
    Thu, February 9, 2017 7:00 PM – 10:00 PM MST
    Brighton High School Auditorium
    2220 Bengal Blvd
    Cottonwood Heights, UT 84121

  8. Here in Oregon we use state lands more or less the same way we use federal lands and the state is constantly selling and buying lands. Close to metro areas lands tend to be sold for school money, purchases appear to be heavily logged over private lands that will not be productive again for decades. One of the big drivers here appears to be termed “government overreach” ie to Malheur standoff last year by the Bundy’s or the Bundy’s ranch standoff that is now in trial in Nevada. I believe that this line is almost completely due to the Endangered Species Act where environmentalists and the courts are in charge and not land managers or citizens, There is no room in the law for discretion. What species are in trouble is a decision that belongs entirely with the science community and needs to have 0 influence from politics. .What is done about it is a social issue. This is true, at least to some extent no matter who owns the land. We see it here time and again where the legislature passes targets for timber harvest that are sued to stop and the courts rarely allow to go forward. Until the ESA is modified to allow at least reasonable discretion and remove decision making from the courts this issue is going to remain front and center, moving ownership away is very flawed way to get around this issue.

  9. From the Idaho Wildlife Federation:

    state legislators have promised the public lands transfer isn’t about selling lands. Well, today bill S1065 was printed, advising ALL state agencies to sell land. “State agencies shall make a prioritized list of all parcels of property…and shall sell into private ownership…” Cat’s out of the bag now- this is about locking you out. There can be no more debate on the issue.

    Stay tuned to see when you can testify against the bill. In the meantime, become an IWF member to help us stop the madness.

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