– by Chris Madson
I wonder when hunters and anglers in the West are finally going to take to the streets.
For 30 years, a handful of special interests has been trying to steal the public’s forests and rangelands. The faces of the Sagebrush Rebellion are shirttail bandits like Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has spent a lifetime raping public rangeland in southern Nevada and has flouted federal law and court orders for the better part of 20 years, but Bundy and his confederates couldn’t get news coverage next to the comic strips in the Pahrump, Nevada, Valley Times if it weren’t for the potent financial, political, and legal backing they get from a much different band of activists — the billionaire supporters of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
With the big money behind it, the Sagebrush Rebellion simply won’t die.
In the spring of 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a bill calling on the federal government to “transfer title of public lands to the state on or before December 31, 2014.” In 2013, the Idaho legislature authorized a two-year interim committee to “study the process for the State of Idaho to acquire title to and control of public lands controlled by the federal government in the state.” Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming have since passed similar bills, and the Colorado and New Mexico legislatures are considering their own versions.
Of course, the states can’t force the federal government to give up its holdings; a move like that would require approval from Congress in Washington. And it’s clear that the same forces that are working to shove proposals through state legislatures are at work in Congress as well. In late March, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would help fund initiatives “to sell or transfer to a State or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument,” which is to say, any national forest land, BLM holding, or national wildlife refuge said state or local governments might want.
This isn’t the work of a renegade bunch of disgruntled brush poppers. It’s a well-funded, carefully coordinated effort to disinherit 318 million Americans inflicted on us by a tiny group of billionaire outlanders. The injury would be felt across the country, but it would be most painful for the people who have chosen to live, often at great personal cost, in the 12 western states that contain most of the nation’s public land. More than 1.8 million of these westerners hunt, and the overwhelming majority of that hunting occurs on national forests and BLM rangelands. More than 5.3 million westerners fish, and while a solid proportion of these anglers pursue their sport on the ocean or on large reservoirs, many, if not most, spend at least some their time fishing on federal land.
So what would ALEC’s brave new West be like for the average resident and tourist? A poorer place ….
Condition of rangeland and forest
Most Monday mornings, I have coffee with three retired biologists who spent long careers with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The other day, I asked them how well they thought state lands had been managed in Wyoming over the last 30 years. About all I got was a snort.
Most of the land the state currently owns is leased to private interests. The Office of State Lands and Investments has neither the manpower nor the inclination to keep track of how those lessees are managing the state property under their control, which means that much of it is routinely abused for short-term profit.
Even the federal authorities struggle to control the excesses of commercial operations that hold leases on public land. In 2011, the BLM itself reported that nearly 93 million acres of the pasture it manages could stand improvement. That’s about 60 percent of BLM rangeland. Not even BLM officials, with the full weight of the federal government behind them, could make sure that public lands were being managed properly if that meant confronting a leaseholder.
I’ve personally seen a sheep operation leave its flocks on a Forest Service grazing allotment for more than three weeks after they were supposed to be removed. This happened repeatedly over several years, and was no accident. The operator was simply stealing public forage, and there was no one around who could force him to stop.
If federal lands reverted to the state, would state authorities have the personnel or the inclination to act against an operator who violated the terms of his lease? Hard experience with state lands suggests the problem would be far worse.
Timber management on national forests has gone through several phases since the Forest Service was created. In 1905, the Service allowed 68 million board feet to be cut. By 1924, the harvest had increased to 1.1 billion board feet. In 1987, it peaked at 12.7 billion board feet, but soon after, the volume dropped as opposition to large-scale clearcuts and the construction of access roads intensified. These days, timber harvest on the national forests hovers around 2.5 billion board feet a year.
Large clearcuts are good for the timber industry and generally bad for the forest, since they encourage soil erosion, degrade water quality, often delay regeneration of the forest, reduce cover for many species of wildlife, and can actually increase the risk of wildfires when large piles of tinder-dry slash are left behind. On the other hand, small clearcuts and selective cutting may be useful tools in managing for wildlife and reducing the risk of wildfire — their value depends on what the public wants from a forest and how the timber harvest is carried out.
Striking a balance between timber yield and other management objectives on national forests has been the subject of lively debate for 50 years or more, and the resulting public dialogue has led to nuances in forest management that would have been unimaginable in the 1960s. I’m not an unalloyed fan of federal timber management, but I have no faith at all in the outcome of similar debates if they are controlled entirely at the state or local level. Without a federal presence to lend some measure of balance to the discussion, industrial interests will prevail.
Energy and mineral development
Over the last 20 years, several researchers have studied the effects of oil and gas production on wildlife in the sage. The results of these investigations are sobering. Massive drilling for natural gas began on the Mesa near Pinedale, Wyoming, in 2001. Over the next 12 years, the mule deer population there dropped 42 percent while the wintering populations on less disturbed winter ranges two to 10 miles to the west showed no decline.
Researchers have found that pronghorn are avoiding the heaviest drilling and vehicle traffic on the Mesa, and still other investigators have found that sage grouse stop using areas within three miles of roads and production sites, apparently because of the noise.
The gas field on the Mesa, along with several other major oil and gas fields in Wyoming, is on BLM land and under nominal BLM management. It’s clear that the federal agency had little influence over the decision to develop these fields, but it has at least been able to force a review of environmental impacts, require ongoing research on lingering effects, and mandate some contribution by the energy companies to fund habitat management for affected wildlife elsewhere.
It’s hard to believe that any of these measures would have been required if the state had been in charge when the leases were developed.
Oil and gas are by no means the only valuable commodities under federal lands in the West. Wyoming is now the leading producer of coal in the country, and as domestic demand has flattened, the state is actively pursuing the possibility of shipping coal to the Far East.
Uranium is once again in demand, and a mining operation for rare earth minerals is scheduled to open in Wyoming’s Bear Lodge Mountains as early as 2017. The fight over the Canadian proposal to mine gold and silver in and around the Gallatin National Forest at the headwaters of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone is still fresh in many minds, and huge deposits of oil shale under BLM holdings will attract attention from industry as soon as the price of oil heads back up. The gigantic Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy projects by themselves will cover nearly 220,000 acres.
Finding a way to balance the demand for these resources with the long-term health of wild land and wildlife will be hard enough, even with federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Management Policy Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and the Endangered Species Act in place to force a semblance of rational decision-making. In the absence of such environmental laws, big business would be free to use its considerable economic and political power to cut every corner and get on with maximizing profit at the expense of the land and its people.
Few management questions on the public domain have generated more heated debate than the issue of access. Whether the proposal at hand is as sweeping as a new million-acre wilderness or as local as a locked gate during hunting season, people on several sides of the proposal are likely to end up fighting mad before a final decision is made.
Most westerners who are familiar with federal lands recognize that there is a balance to be struck when it comes to access. Few of us would be happy if we had to park our trucks at the forest boundary and walk wherever we wanted to go on several million acres, but nearly all of us recognize that, left without regulation, travelers on federal land would pioneer a two-track into every square foot of national forest and BLM land. We know what kind of damage that would cause, not only to vegetation and streams but to the experience most of us come to the public domain to find.
Research at the Starkey Experimental Forest in Oregon has proved what nearly every experienced elk hunt knows: Successful elk hunting begins where the road ends. Elk and most other big game animals have learned from hard experience to stay away from roads. Hunting is just better in the backcountry. That goes for fishing, too — any western angler knows he’d better walk half a mile up the creek before he starts to cast.
The current mix of road and roadless is about as even a compromise as we’re likely to have. It ought to be — we’ve spent two generations wrangling over it. People with the cash and inclination can get to a lot of good places by internal combustion engine. People who are willing to pay for their solitude with sweat instead of gasoline also have that option.
I don’t think the balance we’ve struck would survive if federal lands were turned over to the states. There are already far too many people breaking the law with their ATVs, driving where the law says they should be walking. Without roadless rules and credible enforcement to back them, public land would be overrun with vehicles, and the opportunity to enjoy a day of silence in the backcountry would be lost forever, simply because there would BE no backcountry.
Fish and game
Federal land in the West is far from perfect wildlife habitat. The concessions that have been made in the name of multiple use; the relentless pressures brought by special interests, from Exxon to Wild Horse Annie, have left the nation’s forests and rangelands in less-than-optimum condition. But if the feds can’t hold out against these pressures, I’m sure I don’t know how anyone can expect the states to do better. If federal lands were given to the states, wildlife habitat, both terrestrial and aquatic, would inevitably deteriorate as the demands of special interests were served. There would be less fish and game.
And what was left would spend more time on private property. For several years, I’ve hunted elk on a little mountain range close to the exact center of nowhere. The range itself is BLM ground; the sagebrush flats on all four sides are private land, jealously posted. The mountains aren’t a bad place to find an elk, if you’re willing to get down into the canyons and pack your quarters a thousand vertical feet and a mile or two back to the truck. Better get him in the first three days, though — after that, the whole herd will be down on the private ground, laughing at you. If the access on public land were better, the elk would just move across the fence sooner.
I doubt that any of the western states could summon the will or budget to enforce restrictions on access, should they find a way to lay claim to the federal estate. Without the enforcement, hunting and fishing opportunity would migrate onto private land.
There are a few hunters and anglers who are lucky enough to have connections on a big ranch or two. Some of them may be thinking that more fish and game on private land could be a great thing. I wish them luck with that approach. As quality hunting and fishing become rarer, their value increases. Half a dozen times in my life, I’ve lost a great hunting spot on private land because the owner decided to lease it. I can’t fault such decisions because they mean that the owner may be encouraged to invest more time and money in his wildlife habitat, but the trend clearly favors the hunter who has enough money to lease hunting privileges or buy top-quality game cover outright. I can’t afford to go very far in the bidding for this kind of opportunity, and I doubt many other hunters can, either. This is the way a uniquely American system of hunting becomes Europeanized.
When it comes down to a confrontation between the interests of thousands of hunters and other conservationists on one hand and the interests of even a single landowner on the other, the states have a long, sad record of siding with the landowner. In Wyoming, we now have a law that orders the Game and Fish Department to remove a herd of bighorn sheep if it interferes in any way with a domestic sheep operation.
The bighorn is the West’s rarest and most spectacular game animal. Before settlement, there were as many as 2 million bighorns in North America; now, there are about 50,000. Hunting licenses for bighorns are prized and, at auction, have brought more than $100,000 each. Over the last century, tens of millions of acres of bighorn habitat have been stripped of their wild sheep to make way for domestics. None of this seems to make the least difference to the Wyoming Legislature or its governor. What was it Saint Matthew said? Ah, yes: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
Nailing down the current cost of managing federal lands in the West is a challenge. Budgets for the federal departments of Interior and Agriculture are broken out by activity, not management unit or state. Still, I think it’s fair to assume that the clear majority of the U.S. Forest Service’s activities are carried out west of the 100th meridian, and practically all of the Bureau of Land Management’s work is done in the West.
The Forest Service’s overall budget for fiscal year 2016 is $6.5 billion. Of course, the Forest Service collects money from many of the entities that use the nation’s forests — payments for mineral leases, timber leases, grazing allotments, camping permits, and the like defray some of the cost of operation. In fiscal year 2016, the Service estimates that its income will be about $493 million.
That leaves a Forest Service operating deficit for fiscal year 2016 of about $6,000,000,000 — that’s billion.
Federal mineral royalties from public lands is in the neighborhood of $7 billion, but that goes to the U.S. Treasury (and to states where minerals are extracted) while Congress is always in the mood to cut budgets in the Interior.
These numbers prompt a simple question: If the western states manage to convince the rest of America to give up national forests and rangelands, how could the states possibly afford to manage these lands?
The answer from the proponents of the scheme is twofold: first, eliminate all that federal bureaucracy and, second, charge more for activities on these lands.
The current condition of many of the West’s public lands clearly shows that federal agencies are underfunded — they’re strained to even inspect the properties they’re supposed to manage, and hard experience has shown that they struggle to enforce the land management plans already in place. The cost of federal land management can certainly be cut or entirely eliminated, but that will open the public domain to uncontrolled timbering, mining, mineral extraction, grazing, water diversion, and exploitation of archaeological and paleontological sites. A refined way of describing that situation would be “the tragedy of the commons.” Or you could simply call it what it would be — land rape.
Any effort by state officials to raise more money from leases on public lands would be doomed before it started. Political pressure from special interests has kept user fees and leases on federal lands at fire-sale prices for the last century. State or local authorities would face even more intense pressure to keep fees low. In the end, the asking price for leases and other fees would be a moot point, since there would be little, if any, surveillance or enforcement on the public domain because there would be little, if any, budget or manpower to support these activities.
Of course, there’s a way states could avoid all the complications that would come with taking over federal land — once they gain title, they could just sell it. I doubt that they could find a buyer for it all; bear in mind that the federal government spent years trying to give some of this land away, without success. However, I’m sure there are lots of corporations who would be happy to negotiate rock-bottom prices for the rights to minerals, timber, or forage on some of the federal estate, and the CEOs of those firms certainly have the money to buy the best of what’s left, a few not-so-little corners of paradise for the super rich. Whoever might hold the title to those acres, you can be sure the first order of business would be to build fences and hang out “no trespassing” signs.
Why federal lands matter
This all comes down to a matter of trust: Can state officials, legislators, and bureaucrats be trusted to withstand pressure from oil and gas conglomerates, mining companies, timber magnates, well-connected wind energy corporations, the manufacturers of off-road vehicles, and the livestock industry? Very little that I’ve seen in the last 30 years leads me to believe they can.
And that’s one of the very few convictions I share with the captains of industry. Like me, they’re certain that most of the politicians at the state level can be bought, bullied, or bamboozled into giving them an even freer hand in “developing” the resources of the West than they’ve had in the past. That’s why they continue lurk in the shadows of the debate, pouring untold millions into the effort to take federal lands away from the rest of us. They want to return to the good old days of the nineteenth-century robber barons when they could take what they wanted, when they wanted it, without any concern for the damage they did to the land and its people in the process. They measure their freedom now, as they did then, entirely by their bottom line.
I grew up in a place where I had to ask permission if I wanted to pull off on the shoulder of the road. Like so many others, I was drawn to the West by the mountains and sagebrush basins, the badlands and the big sky. I stayed, like so many others, because these places were open to common, everyday people like me. I can’t understand why anyone with a love of these wild places would ever willingly give them up.
More than government or business, more than constitutions or flags, the land held in common for us all is what keeps real freedom alive in the West. The nation’s forests and ranges are the foundation of a way of life. Without them, this part of the world would be like any other, a landscape whose only purpose is profit, subject to the will of a tiny minority, closed to the rest of us. I can’t even imagine it. I don’t want to try.
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