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.