Knowledge and Courage: What the West Needs to Take Back Our Public Lands
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.