By Ken Ivory

The federal government continues to control more than 50% of all lands in the western United States. Locked up in these federally controlled lands are more than $150 trillion in mineral values and more recoverable oil―in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming alone―than in the rest of the world combined. Failed federal forest policies prevent harvesting timber, which would improve forest conditions and wildfire resilience, provide useful consumer products and renewable energy feedstock, and revitalize rural schools and communities. FBI criminal activity alerts now warn that terrorists are encouraging the use of wildfire in fuel-laden federal forests as weapons for jihad.

There is no good reason for the federal government to retain control over these lands and resources in states like Oregon. We in the West have, in good faith, simply tolerated the federal government’s delay in honoring its more than 200-year-old obligation to transfer title to these lands for so long that now most people assume there must be some valid reason the federal government controls our lands and resources.

But there is none. At a recent Continuing Legal Education seminar to several dozen lawyers, a law professor (who is frequently quoted as saying it is “clearly unconstitutional” for states to take action to secure the transfer of title to their public lands) displayed an annual average precipitation map indicating that the federal government retains control of western lands because they are “arid.”

The second reason he gave was that the founders of the western states simply gave up their lands as a sort of ransom for the privilege of statehood, citing half a sentence in the statehood enabling acts: “… forever disclaim all right and title….” The funny thing is, this same half sentence is word-for-word the same in the statehood enabling acts of almost all states east of Colorado, where the federal government did dispose of their public lands.

In fact, for decades, as much as 90% of the lands in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida were kept under federal control. Then, one man had the knowledge and courage to rally citizens to compel Congress to transfer title to their public lands. His name was Thomas Hart Benton, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Missouri featured in President John F. Kennedy’s best-selling book Profiles in Courage.

The statehood enabling acts promising to transfer title to the public lands are the same for all states west and east of Colorado. It’s been done before―repeatedly and recently. And, returning these lands to state control is the only solution big enough to fund education; better care for our lands and forests; protect access; create jobs; and grow local, state, and national economies and tax base.

If we fail to stand up and take action to secure state and local control of our lands and abundant resources, it will not be because it is illegal, unconstitutional, or impossible. It will only be because we―and the local, state, and national leaders we “hire”―lack the knowledge and the courage to do what has been successfully done before.

Do your local, state, and national leaders know why there is a difference between the way the federal government has handled eastern and western lands? Have you inquired what specifically they are doing to compel Congress to honor the same statehood promise for our children and our future that Congress already kept with Hawaii and all states east of Colorado? Have you asked them what groups or influential individuals they will bring to the effort? Have you asked them what specifically you can do to help?

Now is the time to let our representatives know how transferring federally controlled lands back to the state can vastly benefit Oregon’s economy while preserving and using wisely our wealth of natural resources.

Ken Ivory is president of the American Lands Council and a member of the Utah House of Representatives. He was a guest speaker on this issue for Cascade Policy Institute in November 2013.

4 thoughts on “Knowledge and Courage: What the West Needs to Take Back Our Public Lands

  1. Candidates for federal and state office could promise to introduce legislation turning this property over to the states. Seems like a good way to get elected!

  2. Yes, David Gore, if they want our vote they should pledge to do this.
    About fifteen years ago we here in Coos County and other states had a
    measure on the ballot to take the land back from the Federal Gvt. It passed
    in Coos with 65% of the vote and with even higher numbers in counties like
    Grant. Unfortunately our County Commissioners decided to treat this as an
    ‘advisory vote’ only. We need to vote in patriots with guts and an understanding
    of economics as well the the Constitution.

    In a newsletter last year, Rep. Dennis Richardsen mentioned this issue saying
    it may be time to take the land back. If he can keep this on the front burner, the
    voters may still be there. The rural Pacific Northwest has been depressed long
    enough, and we know what the greens and their cohorts in gvt have done to
    Oregon and its working people.

  3. The “in lieu of taxes” paid to states, cities and counties has continually decreased as legislators assume there is no issue to continue their control of these lands without compensation to the real “owners” of western states. It’s time for the feds to either take responsibility for proper upkeep of western lands and pay land taxes like every other private owner does… or return control of the lands to the states and counties for management. They have TOLD us we cannot log or mine or drill on these lands for years, yet they don’t do their own upkeep or allow use of our natural resources!

  4. The federal government clearly owned all land at the beginning. That is just basic. It was their intent to transfer that land to states and private people. Each state has two or three sections of land in each township and that is all they expected to get. The rest was to go to citizens by way of the various homestead acts. Many millions of acres were successfully transferred that way. Back then the feds would have been happy to transfer the land but nobody wanted it.The main reason few transfers were made in states like Nevada is because ordinary farms can’t survive when there is no rain. These days we may want the land and have ways to make money on it, but there is no way the feds will be giving us any. In fact they would love to take back control of what we already own so they can aggressively push Agenda 21 down our throats. If we want them to let go of the land we will have to start a strong grass roots movement resulting in congress passing laws forcing this to happen. Good luck with that.

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