The New Battle Lands: States Seeking Control of Public Lands in the West
by Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
The oil boom in North Dakota has filled some state leaders with envy.
It’s not just because North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3 percent. Or that its state budget never really took a big hit from the Great Recession.
Part of the reason, especially for some lawmakers in Western states, is that they, too, could be reaping similar benefits from the new drilling techniques that have positioned North Dakota as the nation’s second-highest oil-producing state.
“The Institute for Energy Research says there’s more than $150 trillion in mineral value locked up in federally controlled land,” said Utah Rep. Ken Ivory. “That’s nine times our debt locked up … just sitting there.”
In fact, the institute estimates the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contains 982 billion barrels of oil shale, which could be extracted using hydraulic fracturing. Ivory and other Western lawmakers would like to see the ability to extract that and other minerals grow, and they’d like for their states to benefit. That’s one reason behind a renewed push for states to gain title and control of the federal lands in the West.
Utah, along with New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho and Wyoming, all have passed bills or resolutions challenging federal ownership of land within their boundaries over the past few years.
Martin Nie, a professor of natural resources policy at the University of Montana and self-professed champion of federal land management, said this latest effort is part of a long-running controversy. He views the effort as a continuation of the Sagebrush Rebellion that began in the late 1970s when Western states challenged the notion of federal ownership.
“In a way, it’s kind of a flare-up of this long-simmering debate,” Nie said.
Ivory and others see it differently and believe all they’re asking is the same thing the federal government has given to states in other parts of the country—title to land as laid out in their statehood enabling acts.
Ivory points to maps that illustrate the vast acreage controlled by the federal government in the West—66 percent of Utah and 81 percent of Nevada is federal land —and the relatively small percentage of federal land in Eastern states, which ranges from 0.3 percent in Connecticut and Iowa to 13.4 percent in New Hampshire.
“Why the difference?” he asks.
The federal government owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres in the United States, according to a 2012 report the Federation of American Scientists prepared for Congress. Four federal agencies—the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior—administer 609 million acres, primarily in the West and Alaska.
Nie, who testified before the Montana legislature when it discussed the possibility of a takeover of federal lands in the state, said states have legitimate concerns about the way federal agencies are managing the lands. In Montana, for instance, one of the driving factors is frustration with the BLM and the Forest Service over fire management issues, Nie said.
“Of course, there are plenty of problems on federal lands and each one of those deserves a careful study or thoughtful approach, but they’re not going to be solved by conveying federal lands to the states,” Nie said.
He points to the benefits these federal lands bring to Western states.
In fact, a report by Headwaters Economics, “West is Best: How Public Lands in the West Create a Competitive Economic Advantage,” says many nonmetro counties in Western states are leveraging the presence of public land to attract growing industries with high-paying jobs.
The report shows a loss of more than 33,000 jobs in manufacturing from 2001 to 2010 in those areas, but an increase of more than 78,700 health care and social assistance jobs in that same time frame. The Western population more than doubled from 1970 to 2010, from nearly 34 million people to more than 70 million people.
A 2012 poll published in The Hill Congress blog found that nine in 10 Westerners agreed public lands are an essential part of their state’s economy. Those public lands include state and national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas, which 87 percent of all people, and 96 percent of Westerners, in the poll said are an essential part of their state’s quality of life.
But Ivory said the efforts of Western states to take over the federal public lands don’t include national parks, national monuments and congressionally designated wilderness. It only includes the BLM and Forest Service lands.
Ivory envisions states operating those lands for multiple uses—drilling for oil and harvesting timber, as well as recreation, hunting, fishing and grazing. While much of the land currently is used for those purposes, Ivory believes the states could manage it much better.
He points to school trust lands, managed by the states, that generate $32 an acre for public education in Western states. Citing a 1996 study by Intertech Services Corporation prepared for a Nevada county, Ivory said an acre of public land under state management yields an average of $6.29 per acre, while an acre of federally managed public land loses $1.86 an acre.
In addition, Ivory said because of permitting over the past 10 years, energy production on state and private land is up 27 percent, while it’s down 15 percent on federal land, where most of the resources lie.
Ivory contends states could use the money generated from those energy resources.
“It really is the only solution big enough to better fund education, better care for the lands, protect access,” said Ivory.
Nie said the purposes of school trust land versus the BLM and Forest Service lands are distinctly different. He understands the concerns of states regarding the funding they get from payment in lieu of taxes—or PILT. The federal government transferred nearly $3 billion from federal land payments, which include oil and gas leasing revenue, to the states in 2012, Nie said. But there is a question as to whether Congress will reauthorize the PILT and secure schools program that Western states depend on.
Prospects for Change
Nie believes the current debate will end up like many before—with the federal government maintaining control of the public lands to which it now holds title, mainly because the arguments are much the same as before.
Ivory, however, is confident the Western states are making headway. He believes it’s a true federalism issue that seems to be gaining traction across the country. South Carolina, for one, recently passed a resolution supporting the efforts in the West. While he’s researching the legal arguments, Ivory knows he also needs to make a political argument to gain support from other states.
“When you think of federalism, the states are only an effective check on the federal government as a team,” he said. “This notion of property and the right and control of property and self-governance is starting to rally states and communities and groups together as probably one of the best working examples of federalism, where we start to build that team to become a check.”