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It’s Time to Change Our Failed Federal Lands Policy

By Ken Ivory

In 1976, Congress changed its “policy” regarding our public lands (Federal Lands Policy Management Act, or FLPMA). This “policy” change sought to retain public lands in federal ownership―ignoring the 200-year-old obligation of Congress to transfer title to our public lands.[1]

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hawaii v. OHA, unanimously declared that Congress does not have the authority to unilaterally change the “uniquely sovereign character of [a state’s] admission,” particularly where “virtually all of a state’s public lands are at stake.” This “policy” change has failed Western communities and schools, forest health, wildlife preservation, watershed management, and jobs and the economy―locally and nationally. The Supreme Court has also called these statehood Enabling Acts promises “solemn bilateral compacts between each State and the Federal Government” where both parties have rights, duties, and remedies for breach―even against the federal government if it fails to perform its duties, including its duty to transfer title of the public lands.

However, because Congress changed its “policy” regarding our public lands:

  • Western communities are dying;
  • Western communities have as little as 10% taxable lands to generate revenues for schools, roads, public safety, and public services for the sick and the poor;
  • Western communities are prevented from creating jobs through the responsible use of their abundant natural resources, which further diminishes tax revenues;
  • Western communities are prevented from harvesting even sick and dead trees (let alone our great renewable forest resources), which would create healthier forests less susceptible to catastrophic fires that kill millions of animals, destroy watershed for decades, and harm life and private property;
  • The FBI is now warning that our forests are weapons for al Qaeda jihad efforts instead of renewable resources for creating wealth, funding schools, and providing for healthier forests;
  • Hunters, fishers, campers, recreationists, and others are denied access to public lands as federal agencies arbitrarily close thousands of roads throughout the West;
  • Western states and local governments are dangerously dependent for funding on a broke federal government that is cutting promised funding, robbing revenues derived from Western lands, and even clawing back SRS monies already paid;
  • Western states get between 30-50% of their total revenues from this same broke federal government;
  • Eastern states are paying nearly $9 billion a year to inflict this harm on Western states;
  • As a nation, we are dependent on China for 95% of the rare earth minerals that are essential for national defense technology and modern electronics (including renewable energy technologies), even though an abundance of rare earth minerals is locked up in federally controlled Western lands;
  • As a nation, we are dependent on foreign sources of oil, gas, and minerals, despite having more than $150 trillion in oil, gas, and minerals (and tens of thousands of jobs) locked up in federally controlled lands.

We have the opportunity of our generation to leverage our voices, through local and state representatives, to compel Congress to change its failed “policy” that is killing Western communities, siphoning funds out of Western schools, closing off Western lands, destroying Western forests, locking up Western resources―and in the process destroying Western and national jobs, economic activity, and tax revenues.

It’s been done before. Did you know that the federal government controlled for decades as much as ninety percent of the lands in of Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Florida? Those states simply refused to be silent or take “no” for an answer. They banded together and leveraged their individual, community, and state voices and persistently called upon Congress to honor its obligation to transfer title of their public lands.

There is a solution big enough for the pressing problems of Western states, including Oregon. Congress must change its failed, community-killing “policy.” County and state representatives and their constituents should refuse to be silent or take “no” for an answer until it does. Jobs, school funding, better care for and access to our lands, and our economic future depend on it.

Ken Ivory is president of the American Lands Council and a member of the Utah House of Representatives. He has been a guest speaker on this issue for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.

[1] See, A Legal Overview of Utah’s H.B. 148 – Transfer of Public Lands Act by Professor Donald Kochan, http://americanlandscouncil.org/downloads/Kochan%20Utah%20Public%20Lands%20WP.pdf

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