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Transferring federal land: an old idea that still offends the masses

Rich Landers (SR)
Rich Landers (SR)

Having a beef with the federal government is as old as the USA. So is the associated idealism and greed that’s helping fuel the current campaigns to transfer federal public lands to states or private interests.

The attitude simmers among us like a virus that erupts periodically. The takeover crusades of Cliven and Ammon Bundy have support in anti-government circles, but it withers to the mass appeal of grand protected landscapes free of no-trespassing signs.

Being wealthy as a king is helpful in leasing a good place to hunt, fish and hike in Texas, where less than 2 percent of the state is federal public land.

Meanwhile, in western states rich with federal land, everyone has a kingdom to roam.

Wildlife and sportsman’s groups such as the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have stepped up to publicly oppose federal land takeovers. It’s a nonpartisan stance.

“We have always been against the sale or transfer of our public lands but now we’re seeing some western state legislatures mulling or taking action that could lead to that happening,” said David Allen, RMEF president.

Aside from the potential for transferred land to be privatized, Allen says the movement is a distraction from addressing badly needed improvements to management of public lands, notably national forests.

Everyone can agree that federal land management tends to be encumbered by bureaucracy, but a lot of those rules are handed down by the same lawmakers that use the feds as their whipping boys.

Federal agencies tend to be set up for failure. Since 1994, Forest Service national employment has declined from 45,408 workers to 29,588 in 2016, according to the National Finance Center.

On the positive side, the slow pace of federal land management deters fast, politically motivated pendulum swings in policy that could permanently impact fish and wildlife habitat and public access.

The Ronald Reagan administration tried to boost the last big land transfer movement known as the “sagebrush rebellion,” a coalition of states’ rights advocates seeking to end federal control of Western land.

In 1982, then-Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm described the rebellion as, “Part hypocrisy, part demagoguery, partly the honest anger of honest people, it is a movement of confusion and hysteria and terrifyingly destructive potential.”

James Watt, Reagan’s initial Interior secretary, took to the movement like a preacher. Delivering a speech in Coeur d’Alene, he said, “We inherited an abused land from that administration that was kicked out of office…. What I inherited was a land that had been set aside and deprived of development.”

He was referring to preceding Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who later responded, “I don’t think my generation is so hot that it should make all the decisions. I was more concerned that your children be able to make some decisions.”

One of Watt’s favorite lines at the time: “We must restore America to her former greatness.”

Did he mean the great days when strip miners could run a dredge up trout streams without restraint and turn the land irreparably upside down like they did in West Virginia, and Watt’s home state of Colorado, without setting aside a penny for restoration?

Watt couldn’t change our nation’s strip mining laws, so he cut the money from the division that enforced them.

He stopped the listing of new endangered wildlife species and eliminated funding for federal rangeland improvements.

“This is not a partisan judgment,” Andrus said at a Gonzaga University speech from his perspective as former Interior secretary and soon-to-be candidate for Idaho governor. “I just think Watt should be replaced with a Republican who understands.”

Andrus believed that Americans could have their cake and eat it, too; that we could develop federal lands without ruining wilderness areas and wildlife habitat.

“Some think if you can’t dig it up or cut it down, it has no value,” he said. “But if you protect soil you have a watershed. You don’t find wildlife in an open pit mine or fish in a silted stream.”

In the wake of Watt’s North Idaho visit, Andrus had to defend laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act, and strip mining legislation, all of which had been won with bipartisan support.

“These laws protect cropland, watersheds and wildlife habitat while still leaving an abundance of natural resources to be claimed,” he said.

Too bad Reagan’s legacy couldn’t be enhanced by applauding him for accepting Watt’s resignation. Unfortunately, it was ethnic remarks the Interior secretary made that finally sealed his departure, not the remarkable war he was waging on the sacred ground of public land.

This is history outdoorsmen cannot forget or ignore today.

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