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Con: Ceding land to states is short-sighted economically; historically and legally wrong

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Vicky J. Meretsky and Robert L. Fischman
May 22, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: The writers are addressing the question, “Should the United States cede unused federal land back to the states?”

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Nearly everyone concedes that Cliven Bundy had no grounds for refusing to pay his grazing fees for 20-plus years. While he claims he would happily pay Nevada, the rangeland cannot be ceded back to the state—because it was never Nevada’s to begin with.

Sporting and outdoors groups from throughout the West oppose the idea, and savvy efforts by Republican congressmen from Utah suggest better ways of giving western states a bigger role in federal resource management.

Except for Hawaii, Texas and the area of the original 13 colonies, states were carved from territory owned by the federal government. The United States acquired the land by war or negotiations with tribes and colonizing European nations. Newly created states relinquished claims to federal lands in exchange for generous land grants supporting public schools and other government functions.

Though the United States ultimately kept 630 million acres, it gave states about 330 million acres, a significant area by any measure. While many states sold off their land grants, others keep them as trusts to earn revenue for schools.

For instance, Colorado retains nearly 3 million of the 4.6 million acres it received at statehood in a trust that brings in more than $100 million a year.

Like the federal government, states charge for grazing and collect royalties for petroleum leases. Although federal land occupies more of western than of eastern states, western states still contain more nonfederal land per person than eastern states.

Given the history of land ownership in the West, any ceding of land should, in fairness, go to the Indian tribes that originally occupied lands; the events that brought those lands into federal ownership were hardly shining examples of honest dealing.

In 1976 Congress recognized the decades-old reality that the era of large-scale privatization of federal land had ended. The resulting law was written largely by representatives of western states to retain ranching benefits unlikely to be matched on state or private land. Backlash against the law has proven to be a political winner, although it lacks legal legs.

For all the noise attending the opposition to federal ownership, many are finding ways to work within the existing system to find productive compromises.

In late April, more than 100 organizations representing hunters, anglers, outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife supporters requested Congress provide full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses money from oil and gas leases to purchase habitat for recreation and wildlife protection.

As private land becomes less available or suitable for wildlife, these groups increasingly see the future of their traditions dependent on public lands. While ranchers may prefer to avoid federal restrictions on overgrazing, just about everyone else gains when the federal agencies manage resources to sustain natural resources over the long run.

Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group in Bozeman, Mont., estimates that rural residents in the West enjoyed an average of $436 more in per capita income for each additional 10,000 acres of protected federal lands in their county.

Ownership is not the only possibility for states seeking to enhance access to resources in their borders. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is seeking a narrow path of compromise through his state’s stakeholder groups to craft a win-win land exchange that will benefit extractive users such as miners and oil-drillers, recreation and conservation interests, and county and tribal governments as well. It is a juggling act of considerable difficulty, but as of early May, the compromise effort remained on track.

Bishop has even been willing to push wilderness on county commissions, pointing out that major concessions on one side may be balanced by similar concessions on the other.

The suggestion that federal land be given wholesale to the states is wrong on history, legally mistaken, and shortsighted economically.

Vicky J. Meretsky is associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University and Robert L. Fischman is professor of law and Harry T. Ice Fellow at the Maurer School of Law at IU. Readers may write to them at IU, 1315 E. Tenth St., Bloomington, Ind. 47405.



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