Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Federal land? Some Westerners say there's no such thing

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

 The recent armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stoked long-simmering frustrations over what some Westerners perceive as an inequity.

In the 11 Western states, the federal government controls about half the land, plus more in Alaska. Yet it only controls about 4 percent of the rest of the nation's acres.

"Our system does not work if you have a back-of-the-bus class of states," said Ken Ivory, a Republican state representative from Utah who has spearheaded national campaigns to transfer federal lands to Western states. "To have federal bureaucrats from thousands of miles away who are accountable to no one is not working."

The Malheur occupation, while widely condemned for its tactics, underscored a quieter -- and mostly legal -- push among conservative Western politicians, sheriffs and academics to assert local control over federal lands and their bounty of minerals, trees and grass.

The movement, which targets roughly 640 million acres owned by all Americans, is using a range of tools including education, legislation, litigation and civil disobedience to push the government's divestiture of land.

It seems to have hit a crescendo with Cliven Bundy's armed uprising against the Bureau of Land Management in April 2014 and his sons' seizure of Malheur in January.

And it's found some traction in legal forums, as well -- in county commissions, statehouses and Congress.

Lawmakers in various states last year flooded their chambers with three dozen "land seizure" bills, with six passing full legislatures, according to the Center for Western Priorities. Utah is pondering litigation to seize federal lands the size of Pennsylvania. The Republican National Committee in 2014 adopted a resolution calling for the "imminent" transfer of Western federal lands to willing states.

The activists share many criticisms of federal lands: They can't be taxed. Environmental laws hinder their development. Overstocked forests burn. Locked gates thwart motorized passage.

But the groups involved vary in size, ideology and tactics, and they don't seem to have a unified front.

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