Munro: This land is our land, part deux
Back in late February, in the throes of a bad case of cabin fever, I penned a screed about a nascent movement across the West to transfer ownership of federal lands to the states, or perhaps even into private hands. At the time, the prospect appeared dim.
Then, as if on cue, the stage lights clanked on with the subtlety of a train horn in a library. The Greatest Deliberative Body on Earth passed a budget amendment in late March supporting the concept of selling, transferring or trading federal land to the states. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is more symbolism than substance, but it represents a toe in the Beltway political waters to gauge how future legislation might fare.
It also appears to have emboldened like-minded state lawmakers to have a go at it.
Among them is Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado Senate Majority Whip, who co-sponsored Senate Bill 232, which would have created the “Colorado Federal Land Management Commission to study the transfer of public lands in Colorado from the Federal Government to the States.”
SB 232 lost on the floor of the Colorado Senate on Tuesday, April 28, but something tells me this is far from over in Colorado, much less our considerably deeper red neighboring states. In fact, Utah has at east $2 million in its legal war chest, courtesy of a legislative appropriation, to sue the feds over the issue. And it and Idaho both have passed laws laying claim to large parts of the federal reserve within their borders.
Proponents of such legislation make a salient enough point: Western states are uniquely burdened — or endowed, depending on your point of view — with large swaths of federal lands. To wit, federal land holdings in these states are: Alaska, 61 percent; Arizona, 42 percent; California, 48 percent; Colorado, 36 percent; Idaho, 62 percent; Montana, 29 percent; Nevada, 81 percent; New Mexico, 35 percent; Oregon, 53 percent; Utah, 66 percent; Washington, 28 percent; and Wyoming, 48 percent, according to SB 232.
In contrast, says SB 232, the eastern states, home to those dread Ivy League pols who control our lives while remaining clueless about life west of the Mississippi, are subject to federal jurisdiction on a mere 4 percent of their lands.
So, how many westerners would prefer that arrangement to this? Other than a few monied interests, not many, I’d venture.
This year’s annual Conservation in the West Poll conducted by Colorado College indicates 72 percent of Coloradans believe federal lands should belong to all Americans versus 20 percent who say they should belong to the respective states. Across the West, according to the poll, the numbers change only slightly to 68 percent and 24 percent.
While the pedigree of the poll may be open to debate, even with a fudge factor of 10-15 percent, those are overwhelming majority views.
Which begs the question: When lawmakers go down this road, just whose water are they carrying?
Consider this an open invitation to Sen. Baumgardner and anyone else to enlighten us.
Ostensibly, we’re told, the impetus is economic. States could reap untold billions in revenues and create tens of thousands of jobs with greater development of these lands. For her part, Sen. Murkowski clearly stated her intention is to make it easier to mine, drill, harvest and develop public lands. Apparently nearly all her Republican colleagues agree, as all but three voted for her amendment. (Notably, and to his credit for being willing to buck the party line, Colorado’s freshman U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner voted against it.)
While the economic argument might have some merit, the cost would be astronomical.
For one, many of the tens of thousands of “lifestyle” jobs created by the proximity of federal lands to communities in the West, as well as the billions in revenues state and local governments receive as a result, would be jeopardized. While some ridicule tourism jobs as low-paying and unworthy, we’re not talking chicken feed.
The Outdoor Industry Association says outdoor recreation contributes more than $13 billion annually to the Colorado economy, supports 124,600 direct jobs and generates $994 million in state and local tax revenue. Moreover, study after study demonstrates a direct link between the economic vitality of states such as Colorado and the highly educated workforce attracted to these areas by the nearby federal preserve.
A great deal of this economic impact is contingent upon continued access to federal lands and management of those lands for conservation values in addition to multiple uses. And that doesn’t come cheap. It is a drop dead certainty that were these lands to be transferred to the states, the costs of managing them would quickly overwhelm the states, which would be compelled to sell some of them to cover the costs.
To be sure, federal land managers are sometimes heavy handed in their approach to development. But there are far less draconian ways to cope with that than letting the states dispose of the lands as they see fit.
At the end of the day, turning federal lands over to the state remains a solution in search of a problem.
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