U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visits a trail crew working on the Bridger-Teton National Forest this summer. Similar programs and other forest work scheduled for the fall had to be cancelled when the cost of fighting fires required borrowing their funding. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.WyoFile)

Efforts to wrest federal lands from public ownership are an orchestrated, multi-layered strategy that can’t be brushed off as a fringe idea, a leading conservationist warns.

The federal-lands transfer movement has built momentum to the point it can’t be ignored, said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. A revived Sagebrush Rebellion has seen legislators in 11 Western states introduce 37 land transfer bills with six of them passing and another four finalized as “study” legislation.

The effort has reached inside the Beltway where the U.S. Senate in March voted 51-49 to fund initiatives to sell or transfer federal land to states or local governments. Wyoming’s Republican senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi backed the measure.

Meantime, Wyoming’s lone Representative Cynthia Lummis, also a Republican, on Monday was scheduled to participate in a forum focusing on grassroots efforts toward more local control. Wyoming County Commissioners Association director Pete Obermueller traveled to Washington D.C. to testify. (Read more about the Federal Land Action Group of which Lummis is a member.)

Public-land users may have been lulled into complacency by seemingly iron-clad clauses in the constitutions of Western states and related federal statehood legislation. Plus, states can pass all the land-transfer legislation they want and that wouldn’t change ownership, which would have to be transferred by Congress. Land-transfer backers blunt criticism of their quest, saying public lands would remain public. But the Senate vote this spring and other activity in Washington and around the country should sound alarms, Fosburgh said.

Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, warns conservationists, hunters, anglers, backpackers and others that the federal land-transfer movement is becoming mainstream. Budget cuts to federal land-management agencies have undermined support for federal workers and have led to more calls for state ownership or control. (Dusan Smetana)
Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, warns conservationists, hunters, anglers, backpackers and others that the federal-land transfer movement is becoming mainstream. Budget cuts to federal land-management agencies have undermined support for federal workers and have led to more calls for state ownership or control. (Dusan Smetana)

Far from being a fringe movement, the federal land transfer movement is well-funded, includes K-Street lobbyists and is becoming an accepted political plank, Fosburgh said. “The whole goal is to make this mainstream,” he said.

“If anybody thinks this is going to go away with a single vote, it’s not going to happen,” Fosburgh said at a panel discussion two weeks ago at the SHIFT festival in Jackson. There conservation, adventure and public lands were on the agenda for a recreation-oriented crowd. “Folks who have been sitting back … it’s a different day,” he told a receptive audience. “At some point you’ve got to make a stand.”

Fosburgh’s TRCP supports sustainable hunting and public access to federal lands, and he’s convinced that the transfer of federal lands to states would be the first step of privatization. “This is the No. 1 threat to hunting and fishing,” he told the SHIFT audience. “If you take away public lands, you take away hunting and fishing.”

A long-term strategy to sow dissatisfaction?

Fosburgh’s views illuminate the seriousness with which some in the conservation community are now viewing the renewed Sagebrush Rebellion. The movement is supported by a strategy that’s decades old — starving land management agencies — transfer critics say. Launched under the guise of deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility, budget cutting is also a cynical ploy to sow dissatisfaction of federal western land management at the grassroots level, Fosburgh contends.

While transfer supporters might dismiss this theme as political babble, it is being adopted in Western recreation enclaves like Jackson Hole. From this perspective, the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s never ended. A reaction against increasing federal regulation, the simmering resentment of federal landlords had its origins during the Reagan presidency under budget director David Stockman, Fosburgh argues.

While Stockman may not have had designs on federal holdings, he launched an era of budget conservatism that’s hamstrung land-management agencies. Today many see federal field workers as incapable of doing their jobs. In that atmosphere, land-transfer advocates have proposed a solution — state ownership or management of the very lands that have been starved of stewardship.

The U.S. Forest Service created this graphic to show how the number of personnel doing land-management work (green figures) has shrunk over the last two decades while more and more personnel are devoted to firefighting. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
The U.S. Forest Service created this graphic to show how the number of personnel doing land-management work (green figures) has shrunk over the last two decades while more and more are devoted to firefighting. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

“You can go all the way back to the 1970s,” Fosburgh, said. Since 1977, the percentage of the federal budget spent on conservation has been cut in half, from 2.2 percent to 1.1 percent, TRCP says, citing government figures.

The figures cover “everything in the natural resources arena,” said Paul Wilkins, chief conservation officer with the TRCP. That conservation category includes the majority of Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service and EPA budgets.

TRCP worries discontent will earn more supporters for the land-transfer movement. “Congress has fostered this frustration that is real on the ground,” Wilkins said. “A lot of people complain about our land-management agencies. They’ve been given very complex rules and less funding and are expected to do more. In reality, Congress both sets the budget and writes the rules.”

Legislators’ effort have been “a calculated policy,” Fosburgh said. “You have this sort of strangling of the agencies.” The result is illustrated in an email Wyoming Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) sent to constituents explaining why she introduced transfer legislation in Cheyenne earlier this year. (It died, but a $75,000 study bill did pass.)

“U.S. management of forests is poor, you must admit,” she wrote. “The Bridger-Teton, Medicine Bow and Shoshone forests are unhealthy. We are in an era of catastrophic forest fires due to mismanaged, dangerously high fuel loads. A healthy forest will have 80 trees per acre. There are forests in the West that have a very unhealthy 400 trees per acre. Wildlife, much less trees, cannot thrive in those forests.”

Halverson will go along with half of Fosburgh’s argument. “I happen to know that the Forest Service budget has been getting cut forever,” she said. “It seems reasonable to me that by starving these land managers they are, in effect, failing the public, and are not able to support multiple use.

“I think that’s a perfectly logical analysis of what’s going on,” Halverson said. “Close a few campgrounds … the Forest Service pleads poverty,  which I happen to believe, then the people start getting upset and they want to manage the land.”

But is it a grand conspiracy? “In order to agree with that I’d have to be inside someone’s head,” Halverson said.

Slurry of reports underscores funding woes

A slurry of recent reports and opinions from both conservation groups and the government itself highlight federal land agencies’ funding woes. Earlier this year Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack swung through Jackson Hole campaigning for more money for the U.S. Forest Service as increasing firefighting costs hobble the agency’s day-to-day operations. For the first time, the Forest Service will spend more than half its annual budget fighting fires, up from 16 percent 20 years ago.

The agency’s re-balanced — or unbalanced — workforce illustrates the consequences. In 1998 there were 18,000 employees managing Forest Service lands. Today there are fewer than 11,000, while the rest fight blazes. That means non-fire personnel ranks have shrunk by 39 percent, as documented in the report “The rising cost of wildfire operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work.”

The agency is forced to borrow from elsewhere in its budget. That practice, also called fire transfers, “has steadily consumed an ever increasing portion of the agency’s appropriated budget,” the report says. Fall projects are cancelled, whether they be partnership programs with trail crews, prescribed burns, or other projects.

Dissatisfaction in local communities can result. “While Congress typically provides supplemental resources to replenish the Forest Service budget after fire transfers, transfers remain extremely problematic as they disrupt seasonal work, frustrate partners, and delay vital work,” the report says.

Campgrounds and other recreation sites also suffer. “The overall effect is an increase in public health and safety concerns, and liability for the federal government,” the report says. “The only action national forests can take to reduce the government liability is to close recreation facilities, thereby impacting the outdoor recreation opportunities that drive many rural tourism economies.”

Outdoor recreation is a $646 billion annual industry, supporters say, and a growing portion of it takes place on special Bureau of Land Management property. Another paper, this one by The Wilderness Society, outlines deficiencies in funding that agency’s 30-million acre National Landscape Conservation System.

Wyoming County Commissioners Association published this map of federal ownership in a handbook outlining federal holdings across the country. While the map shows 42 percent federal ownership in Wyoming, more common figures list the holdings at 48 percent. (Wyoming County Commissioners Association)
Wyoming County Commissioners Association published this map of federal ownership in a handbook outlining federal holdings in the state. While the map shows 42 percent federal ownership in Wyoming, more common figures list the holdings at 48 percent. (Wyoming County Commissioners Association)

In Wyoming, where the federal government owns 48 percent of the state, the BLM system includes national scenic and historic trails and wilderness study areas. “The National Conservation Lands now account for over 12 percent of the land the BLM manages,” The Wilderness Society said. “Unfortunately, in 2015 they received less than 6 percent of total BLM funding.”

In FY 2015, the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System received $64 million when it needed $70 million to keep pace, the group’s 32 page report “2015 State of the National Conservation Lands: A third assessment” states.

“Instead, continual budget cuts undermine the BLM’s ability to hire sufficient rangers, archaeologists, historians, and coordinators for volunteer and partnership programs,” the report says. “In turn, lack of staff makes it difficult to identify and maintain trails, close roads and enforce travel restrictions, restore habitat, apprehend vandals, interpret resources, and stabilize fragile cultural sites….”

Even the National Park Service is not immune to the constrained conservation budget. It faces deferred maintenance that amounts to $11.5 billion. Threats of development inside park borders became more real as Congress recently let authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund expire.

In the second sentence of his radio address Saturday, President Obama referred to a Wyoming landmark as he urged reinstatement of the fund. “We’re blessed with natural treasures – from the Grand Tetons to the Grand Canyon,” he said. Yet the view of the Teton Mountains could be marred if Wyoming sells two 640-acre school trust sections in the heart of the park. The LWCF could be used to buy that land for preservation if the account was reauthorized and funded.

Democrats say the erosion reaches into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well. Last week U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz), the top Democratic member of the House Natural Resources Committee, published an op-ed piece in The Hill, Only Congress can prevent National Wildlife Refuges’ financial death spiral.

“Over the past several years, our national wildlife refuges – homes to bald eagles, American alligators, grey wolves and too many other iconic species to name – have been systematically starved of money and staff,” he wrote. “House Republicans have insisted on budget cuts that are crippling the Refuge system. Since 2011, the Refuge system has lost 430 employees – more than 12 percent of its workforce.”

Halverson still on course

Regardless of the reason federal agencies are in their current position, Halverson’s still on the side of state ownership or management of federal lands.

“We [feds] don’t have the money and it doesn’t seem to be Washington’s priority,” Halverson said. As far as shifting those priorities, “I don’t know if anyone in Washington has the spine to do that. I think land managers are way low on the list.”

Which brings her to state ownership and/or control.

“States will put multiple use as a higher priority, healthy forests as a higher priority,” she said. “I think Wyoming would move land management way up on its list of priorities.”

This week’s Wyoming revenue estimates — through a lens of dismal energy prices and production — gave Halverson pause. It’s not as if Wyoming can waltz in with a pot of funds and rescue campgrounds. One solution would be selling federal resources, she said.

“We have some terribly unhealthy forests,” she said, pointing to some places she says trees are 10 times thicker than they should be. “On the Shoshone National Forest we’ve got up to 400 trees per acre and it’s just not healthy. We could get these forests cleaned up [with timber sales] and make some money in a very short time.”

This article was corrected to reflect the proper name of Pete Obermueller’s  association. It is the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, not the Wyoming State Commissioners Association — Ed.

Contract for Wyoming’s study of transfer of federal lands

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Utah House of Rep Ken Ivory and the American Lands Council (ALC), the nonprofit he started in 2012 to champion the transfer of Western public lands to states is pushing legislation in Utah and other states. Both Mr. Ivory and his wife get large paychecks from ALC…it should be illegal for him to get legislation passed that puts money directly in his bank account.
    A couple of months ago on a radio show, some listener asked the Lt. Governor of Utah how the amount per student spent on education could be increased. The reply was by getting property tax on every acre of land in the state, but because the Feds own so much land, that was decreasing the amount of tax revenue possible. Right then he admitted that the intent of getting the Fed land transferred to the State of Utah was to either sell it or mine it. If the state owns it, the amount of property tax revenue would not increase….the only way property tax revenue would increase is if it is owned privately.
    Too bad some people are being fooled by these snakes.

    Reese Perry

  2. This is complete smoke and mirrors. No matter how much the funds have been reduced, the Federal Agencies have been hijacked by a few and have moved from conservation to preservation. Huge tracks of lands have been closed to all users and I mean ALL Users. The Feds have closed all roads and access in many areas and will continue. Local input has been ignored completely and will continue unless the States get more involved. I certanly feel we need to have access to all lands that are “public”. It is our right. Use but do not abuse.

    The Federal Agencies have been bloated by usless experts that do nothing except defend their decisons from litigation. What is really sad is most litigation is silly so green groups can get EAJA dollars and tie all decison they do not like up in court. We are so upside down. A great example is here in the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area (ODNRA). The Original 1972 Act signed by then President Nixon had a requirement for an Advisory Council made up of local folks. In 1976 the USFS decided they did not need local input so the dispanded the Legally required Advisory Council by administrative rule. (Thats right 4 years later) Since then 75% of the ODNRA has been closed and what is worse they planted European Beach Grass and 50% of the open sand has been grown over and gone.

    Jody Phillips

  3. I wrote an article a year or so ago for the local papers about the State of Oregon selling off the state forest land because they were tired of environmentalist. Sure we have difference but I grew up in the west where I enjoyed the best freedom of movement anywhere in the world. To be sure I am a western gun owning country boy that considers democrats to be right down dangerous to my personal freedom. That said if this movement to turn federal lands over to the states, and ultimately to private ownership count me out. I don’t want the west to become the east where almost all land is private. We have enough no trespassing signs. I warned that this movement will put Hillary in the White House if it doesn’t stop.

  4. States can and would do a better job managing our public lands. As for John Gibson in Billings. His group files litigation against private landowners while ignoring the closure of more than 21,000 miles of roads by the Forest Service in Montana over the last 15 years. Currently more than 208 million board feet of timber sales in Montana are on hold due to litigation. 2 individuals, Sara Jane Johnson and Michael Garrity, are responsible for 70% of these lawsuits against timber harvests. Over 50% of our forests in Montana, managed by federal agencies, are dead from beetle kill and we can’t cut a tree. 5 of our major mills in Montana have laid off employees with the primary reason being the lack of a consistant log supply. The state forestry division makes money on their timber sales and these state lands are cared for extremely well. The environmental groups have found a cash cow through the EAJA in collecting over a billion dollars per year from litigation. Why would they want anything to change? Our own DEQ for the State of Montana has on their website that smoke from the forest fires every year in Montana are “causing premature death”. More local control of these lands would benefit the people, the environment, our water quality, our air quality, our wildlife, our private property and provide jobs in our small communities dependent on responsible resource development. The transfer of these lands to the states is coming. It is just, it is legal, and it is long overdue!

    1. The mitigation of beetle kill and wildlands fire smoke goes much further than just flipping public lands into state control. The root cause of both beetle kill and increased wildlands fire are related to the ramifications of global warming. Thus state control of these lands has nothing to do with mitigating these problems. In fact, if anything, it would exacerbate the situation.

      Debra Hanneman

    2. The state is selling off the land because they can’t afford to maintain it. If the Bundy’s get their way and all federal land is transfered to the states, the exact same thing will happen. And this is good how?

      Daniel Smith

  5. A graduate Forester and 33 year career managing National Forest Lands in several western states gives me some insight into this issue. Contrary to the long standing claim that we can log our National Forests back to health, the sad truth is we have logged more land in the past 20 years than in the previous 60 and forest health has never been worse. This history of heavy handed management is true for private and public lands. All we did accomplish is destroy many of the other values of public lands with road systems which we cannot afford to take care of anymore. So now we have the same economic barons that desired the cheap timber from those lands wanting not only the timber, but the land itself. Public lands used to support sawmills and small town economies across the West in the development era of the public trust. Now they enhance the lifestyles of thousands of residents who have flocked to buy and develop lands adjacent to the public trust, often making their living remotely in the new information age. These lands, which no one wanted in the past have become real estate gold mines. Those who come now under the guise of ‘”forest health” are con artists laying smoke so no one sees the real agenda of transferring the public’s lands to private ownership. Ownership development which will yield a bonanza of real estate profits to the new robber barons of our time. The value of these lands to rich private owners is many times more than all the timber, and minerals they have yielded in the past century. Forward thinking people must engage and stop this thinly veiled land grab at the next ballot box opportunity. We all inherited the ranch from our predecessors and some are now trying to cash out and rob our children and theirs of our rich public land heritage.

    Gary Reynolds

  6. We really need to get together on this — hunters, fishermen, mountain bikers, equestrian, skiers, and all other recreational users/eco-tourists. We HAVE to make a push to boycott Utah. The only way we are going to have any influence on elections in Utah is to boycott their eco-toursim. We have to hurt their economy and need to make sure they know why. This is insane. All of the outdoor magazines, guide services, fishing gear, hunting gear, ect manufacturers need to get on board with this… and fast.

    Chad Newman

  7. So the states are going to thin millions of acres of national forest. Bull.. I am a graduate forester and worked in the NF for 34 years. Here is my conclusion: Any sportsman who votes for a Republican is either crazy or badly confused.. This ain’t about unhealthy forests.
    John Gibson.

  8. A talk on this subject — Our Public Lands Under Siege — will be given Saturday, Nov. 14, 12 noon, at the Casper Petroleum Club. Speaker will be Bruce Palmer, vice-chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party and admissions and marketing director for NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander. Guests welcome: call Jerre at 234-8625 for buffet reservations.

    Jerre Jones