tate lands in this region south and east of Casper are depicted in green, purple, blue and red. The federal government granted approximately 4.2 million acres of land to Wyoming when it became a state in 1890. The state’s land parcels are intermingled with, and sometimes fenced inside private land. (click here for an interactive map of Wyoming state lands)

– Guest column by Luther Propst and Susan Culp

“Laws change; people die; the land remains.” — Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States

A furor is brewing in Wyoming and throughout America’s Intermountain West among a handful of short-sighted politicians who are demanding state ownership and control of vast acres of national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and other public lands that are owned by all Americans.

Luther Propst
Luther Propst

They argue that it is unfair for Western states to have wide open public lands within their borders – in spite of the tremendous contributions that these lands make in jobs, economic prosperity, quality of life, clean water, and places to hunt, fish, hike and otherwise enjoy our birthright as Americans. They claim that the states (and private industry) can better manage these lands.

When we scrutinize these assertions against the history of public land and state land management in Western states, their claims do not match up to the facts.

Did Western states get a bad deal when it comes to land? No – if anything, the federal government gave Western states a tremendous advantage compared with other states. As the United States admitted new Western states into the Union, Congress awarded each state an extraordinary gift – massive acreage of public lands. To illustrate: the federal government in 1890 gave Wyoming 4.3 million acres; in 1894 the federal government gave Utah 7.5 million acres (or 14 percent of the state); in 1912 it conveyed Arizona 10.5 million acres.

These generous gifts of land included two significant caveats: the land was conveyed in trust, largely to support public education and other essential public institutions; and Western states renounced in their state constitutions any further claims to federal public land.

These generous land grants, starting in 1785, were intended to provide enduring benefit to public education and other public institutions in the new states – giving Western states a tremendous leg up compared to Eastern states in supporting the needs of their citizenry. Despite the best efforts of the dedicated, but underpaid, staff of state land departments, that potential has not been met due to feeble legislative appropriations to manage these lands, state policies that undervalue the lands, and outright corruption that has led to massive divestments of many of these lands.

Susan Culp
Susan Culp

In fact, management of lands owned by the states shows what the future would look like if these folks get their way. Let’s look at one egregious example: Nevada.

In 1864 the United States admitted Nevada into the Union and deeded the state about 2.7 million acres (4 percent of the state) to generate revenue for public education. Today, the Nevada Division of State Lands manages about 3,000 acres, the state having sold off the balance in a variety of ill-conceived transactions. One would think that Nevada is now realizing an embarrassment of riches from soundly investing the proceeds of privatizing nearly 2.7 million acres. Think again: In fiscal year 2012, the state distributed about $2 million generated from state lands to the public schools, which, given Nevada’s school population, comes to about $3 per student per year.

Nevada’s experience with state land management is not isolated. In Arizona, decades of anemic legislative funding for state parks have led to prolonged park closures, a maintenance backlog totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, and the degradation of significant historic and cultural resources. Equally insufficient funding for the Arizona land department severely limits the state’s ability to enforce against trespass, vandalism, illegal dumping, and squatting.

Advocates of state sovereignty claim that states will do a superior job of managing public lands, and that the health and productivity of those lands will improve. Examination of these assertions against historical evidence tells a very different story.

Claim by state sovereignty proponents: States won’t curtail public access.

Historical evidence: State land managers routinely prohibit public recreational use of state lands absent purchase of permits, as in the case of Wyoming, where state law allows issuance of temporary use permits for outdoor recreational activities only on a case-by-case basis at a cost of $25 per day, minimum.

Claim: States won’t privatize public lands.

Evidence: Western states routinely sell and lease large acreages of state land, with leases often prohibiting public access.  In the last several decades, several Western states have sold more than 1 million acres each. Utah has sold more than 3 million acres of its original conveyance. Nevada has disposed of more than 2.7 million acres.

Claim: Public lands will remain open to the public after transfer to the states.

Evidence: In 2010 and 2011, Arizona closed many of its state parks for several months as a result of insufficient legislative funding to keep them open.

Claim: States will generate a magnificent amount of revenue from development of public lands.

Evidence: Disposal or development of millions of acres of state lands generates very modest revenues for states (with the exception of revenue from leasing oil fields).

Claim: States will promote open and inclusive decision making.

Evidence: While federal land management decisions often frustrate everyone involved, federal law and practice provide for more robust public notice, engagement, and opportunity to comment than states in the Intermountain West. We find no state in the region with policies that come close to involving the public as comprehensively as does the Federal Land Policy Management Act.

Claim: Constitutionally, the federal government is not supposed to own land.

Evidence: The U.S. Constitution clearly describes the ability of the federal government to own and manage land in Article IV, § 3, Clause 2 (the Property Clause), which gives Congress authority over federal lands. The courts have upheld this repeatedly, stating that Congress’ power to legislate on this issue is “without limitation.”

Claim: States only covet “multiple use” public lands with low conservation and recreational value.

Evidence: In 2012, Arizona Proposition 120 purported to seize Grand Canyon National Park and all other national park lands and wilderness areas in Arizona. Arizona voters rejected the measure — which was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council — by a wide margin.

Let’s look at Wyoming: State law prohibits state land managers from allowing camping on state lands (although state parks are managed differently), and require costly permits for a variety of other outdoor recreational activities on those lands. Hunters are not guaranteed access to state lands if the person leasing the grazing rights does not want them there.

These and countless other examples are the stuff of Western legend: grazing leases issued below market value; land, minerals or rights-of-ways privatized in non-competitive auctions; imbalanced land exchanges; poor forestry practices that fail to protect against catastrophic wildfire; energy development without conditions to protect the economic viability of working ranches, water quality or wildlife habitat; threats to liquidate for development state land surrounded by national parks (e.g. Grand Teton National Park) unless the federal government pays a price inflated by the adjacent national park; and the frequently inadequate management oversight by beleaguered and underfunded state land agencies.

On the other hand, public land managers have developed a generally impressive track record participating with diverse stakeholders to improve management of specific public lands – such as a single county, a specific watershed, or lands surrounding a mountain community. We offer three suggestions for improving the effectiveness and diversity of these collaborative public land management processes.

Encourage public land managers to engage with collaborative, place-based processes. While it can be challenging to work collaboratively with people with whom one disagrees, we think that increasing the incentives and capacity of public land managers to engage in place-based collaborative land management processes is the most effective approach for improving the economic, social, and ecological value of these lands. Ironically, strident demands for the federal government to cede ownership of these lands only hinders effective collaborative decision-making.

Provide additional funding for managing public lands. Congress has cut funding for public land managers to the point where fire suppression now consumes almost half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget. As we see with the ill-advised budget cuts recently forced on the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, starving these agencies simply means that the public gets less value. While there are plenty of examples of poor public land management, Wyoming receives significant value for oil and gas development on public land. One of our largest industries — tourism — is highly dependent upon public lands. Management costs money and Congress needs to allocate enough for good stewardship.

Renew and modernize the land and water conservation fund. In 1965, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund, authorizing federal funds from offshore energy development to acquire sensitive land for conservation. This authority expires in 2015, and reauthorization is going nowhere in the U.S. Congress. Congress should reauthorize and update the LWCF. It could then allocate funds not only to acquire lands with high conservation value, but also to restore the economic and ecological value to society of both public lands and the even more badly degraded state lands, and to provide dedicated funds to support Western counties with public lands (known as PILT payments). This approach would provide hunters, anglers, hikers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts with more streamlined recreation access, provide Western rural counties with jobs restoring and managing these lands, and increase tourism.

Every American owns an equal share of our public lands. Our founding fathers knew the great power in providing land for the people. Efforts demanding to “take back” these lands are an attempt to deprive Americans of our birthright. If we squander the heritage of future generations to satisfy those who would exploit or dispose of these national treasures, history will judge us harshly.

— Susan Culp is the principal of NextWest Consulting, LLC, and has worked in the conservation community in Arizona for more than 15 years to promote parks and public land preservation and stewardship, reform and modernize state trust land management, and promote policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts.

— Luther Propst founded the Sonoran Institute in 1991 and directed it until 2012, where he advanced local conservation and sustainability throughout Western North America.  He now lives in Jackson, Wyoming and speaks frequently on Western conservation, local land use policy, and the health of the conservation movement. The Jackson Hole based Murie Center recently honored Propst with its annual Spirit of Conservation award for his career-advancing community-based, collaborative conservation in Western North America.

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  1. A plan for privatizing public lands exits on the Cato Institute’s, a Koch Bros think tank, web site. One of the beneficiaries of their plan would be the rancher who currently leases the public land. The rancher would be given deed to the public land under a term defined as “squatters rights.” The Koch Bros also have connections to ALEC. A number of our Wyoming legislators have strong ties to ALEC. The current push to have the federal lands turned over to the states is being lead by legislators with ALEC ties.
    I am afraid this in turn would lead eventually to privatizing the public lands where as Mr. Maguire stated, 99 percent of us lose. 1 percent gets much richer.”
    Bill Voigt
    Laramie, WY

  2. I find that Propst and Culp have no real understanding of state land. Lands leased for grazing can be used for recreation where legal public access exists. Ranchers leasing state grazing land have no power to stop recreational use. Where state land is farmed under agricultural leases, the public is not allowed to recreate in order to protect the crops. There are no federal lands that are farmed so there is no comparable federal action. State parks are generally not very large and are more similar to urban parks. The state park at Thermopolis is an example of a well run recreational facility that had been in operation for many years.

    Many areas of federal land such as the 15,000 acre Teapot Dome Naval Oil Reserve, now administered by the Department of Energy, have never allowed any recreational use. A few years ago DOE would not allow Canadian employees of a geophysical crew to even cross the reserve. Many National Parks and Monuments were closed due to the budget battles in Congress in recent years. Propst and Culp seem to be a little forgetful. The states record of managing land is quite good. Its been my experience that the State of Wyoming will act to protect state land from damage from mineral exploration while the federal government oftens is mired in red tape in similar situations on federal lands.

    Doug Cooper
    Casper, Wyoming

  3. Thanks for an excellent analysis of a very important Western issue. I was surprised that you didn’t mention the cost of suppressing wildfires that the state would incur should the federal lands revert to the states. One big fire and the state would be selling hundreds of thousands of acres to rich guys (read real estate and energy developers) to pay to put the fire out. Ninety nine percent of us lose. One percent gets much richer.
    Fred Maguire
    Casper, WY