Sunday, May 04, 2014

'Bigger than Bundy': Land agency's battles go beyond rancher dispute

by Barnini Chakraborty

It's the most powerful agency you've never heard of -- at least, until recently.

The Bureau of Land Management, the nation's biggest landlord, found itself in the spotlight after a high-profile brawl with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and another dispute with state officials over the Texas-Oklahoma borderlands.
But the seemingly obscure agency, which is in charge of millions of acres of public land, is no stranger to controversy. History shows the power struggle over property rights and land use is one that's been fought -- fiercely -- ever since the bureau was created.

In the nearly seven decades of its existence, the BLM has struggled to find its footing and exert its power, pitted against a vocal states' rights movement.

"The federal government already owns too much land," Texas Gov. Rick Perry, one of the champions of that modern-day movement, recently told Fox News. He called for the federal government, and by extension the BLM, to "divest itself of a huge amount of this landholdings that it has across the country."

The Bureau of Land Management was formed in 1946, consolidating two now-extinct agencies into one for the purpose of overseeing public land. In the beginning, the BLM mostly focused on livestock and mines. Its mission shifted, though, in the 1970s when it took on the role of mediator between commerce and conservation, and faced a second identity crisis in the 1980s. That's when the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion gained new momentum in its push to return control of federal lands to individual states.

That "rebellion" may be underway once again, as states renew concerns about the amount of land controlled by the BLM. Congress also recently weighed in, with House lawmakers passing a bill in February that would prevent the BLM from buying new land.

Currently, the agency, which falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Interior, oversees 247.3 million acres -- or about one-eighth of the land in the country.

It also owns 700 million acres of on-shore federal mineral estates.

In Nevada, rancher Cliven Bundy's recent refusal to hand over his family's cattle to the feds re-ignited the national debate over the BLM's power.

On the heels of that controversy, more than 50 lawmakers from nine Western states came together to protest federal land expansion. The state leaders discussed ways to combine their joint goals of taking control of oil-, timber- and mineral-rich lands away from the federal government.

Ken Ivory
 "It's so much bigger than Bundy. There are issues ... all across the West where the federal government is exerting control over things it was never supposed to control," Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory told Fox News. "The federal government was supposed to be a trustee. They do own the land. They do hold title to the land in trust ... but they have a duty to dispose of the land with all states east of Colorado."

Ivory says he wants the federal government to keep a promise it made in the 1894 Enabling Act that made Utah a state. He argues that public lands, except for congressionally designated national parks and wilderness areas, should be transferred back to the states.

So far, state lawmakers in Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington are looking for ways to transfer land management back to the states.

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