As if battles with the federal government over immigration and health care weren’t enough, several western states have embarked on a campaign to wrest control of tens of millions of acres of federal lands in the West. Utah is furthest along with the governor there having just signed into law a measure asking the federal government to give back more than 20 million acres of public lands. Not to be outdone, the Arizona Senate just passed SB1332 which would require the federal government to transfer nearly 30 million acres (or roughly 40% of the state) to the state by 2015 or face the imposition of property taxes. Governor Brewer somewhat unexpectedly vetoed the measure acknowledging that it was unconstitutional and would have imposed a huge budget liability on the state if the federal lands were actually put under state control. Measures are expected to be introduced in Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico.
Coupled with these legislative efforts are a new raft of lawsuits alleging that the federal government reneged promises made at the time these states entered the Union that federal ownership would be temporary. While most legal commentators agree that this issue has been resolved in the federal government’s favor repeatedly over the years, that doesn’t address the very different public-private land ownership patterns between states in the Mountain West and the rest of the country.
Its clear from comments being made by sponsors of the bills that if they are successful they believe state ownership will pave (literally and perhaps figuratively as well) the way for more aggressive resource extraction and development. The issue has even reared its head in the Republican primary where Senator Santorum has said if elected he would work to transfer much of the federal lands to the states and sell them to private interests. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has recently issued a lengthy study discussing possible reforms to federal land management including the transfer of such lands to the states.
Environmentalists have been quick to raise the alarm of what such a transfer would likely mean for treasured wilderness areas such the red rock lands surrounding Moab, Utah. As this issue evolves it is almost a certainty the public trust doctrine will be invoked by those seeking to insure continued management of such lands in a manner that promotes the interest of the general public rather than a small group of private parties interested only in economic development. A recent Nevada Supreme Court decision did just that in applying the public trust doctrine to a dispute about whether the state had to transfer some land recently acquired from the federal government to a county.
While the takeover is supported by many in the Tea Party, in this case it is environmentalists who are raising the disastrous impact such a transfer of land could have on state budgets.