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Land Grab Duplicity

Right-wing land transfer activists are trying to convince the American people that federal public lands belong to the states. To achieve their goal, they are peddling in fiction and deceit.

By Jimmy Tobias


A couple on a motorcycle ride past a sign posted at the Angeles National Forest announcing the recreation facility area closed on October 2, 2013, in the mountains north of Los Angeles, California, on the second day of the U.S. government shutdown. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The land transfer movement — a gaggle of extreme conservative legislators, industries, and Koch network operatives — is resurgent. Its goal: to put a majority of our country’s 600 million acres of federal public land, with their eye-popping mineral wealth and scenic splendor, into the hands of state governments ruled by right-wing ideologues. From there, much of the land would likely fall prey to the oil and gas, ranching, and other heavyweight industries.

Federal public lands, let me remind you, are the national forests, grasslands, and more that make up our proud conservation tradition. (National parks and wilderness areas are part of the mix too, but transfer proponents, in a politically savvy move, are not targeting them.) These lands are owned by us — the American people — and held in trust by federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service. Should the transfer movement succeed, however, they’d be ours no longer.

Congress, when it enabled the creation of the Western states, laid down language that prohibits the kind of land grab that the far right desires.

Land transfer advocates are operating on several fronts: In Western states, Republican legislators have teamed up with the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and a group called the American Lands Council to push legislation that would force the federal government to relinquish its claim to its public holdings. With its 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act, Utah is leading the charge.

In Washington, Tea Party politicians like Utah’s Rob Bishop are using a number of legislative techniques to promote the land transfer agenda in Congress. And just last month — after the Bundy stunt made the issue a front-page phenomenon — land transfer went national. A new coast-to-coast campaign — called “Free the Lands,” and backed by the Koch-linked group Federalism in Action — wants to ignite grassroots fervor for the transfer of federal lands in all 50 states. It hopes to persuade the American people to renounce their ownership of the public domain.

We’ve been here before. Nearly 70 years ago, the columnist Bernard DeVoto, writing in Harper’s, brought to the nation’s attention a nefarious attempt by mining companies, ranchers, and politicians to transfer ownership of millions of acres of national forests and federal rangeland to Western states and private interests.

“The plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the [s]tates, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually to private ownership,” DeVoto wrote. “A few groups of western interests,” he added later, “are hellbent on destroying the West.”

This post-war land grab, DeVoto argued, was a fool’s errand. It was based on the deluded notion that the land belonged to the Western states and their industrial concerns. In reality, of course, the land was federal and public. The Western cattle ranchers and mining firms that used the land did so as a privilege, not as a right. But they and their political representatives wanted to control the wealth of the public domain, and convinced themselves that they had a legitimate claim.

Their campaign failed, not least because of the advocacy of DeVoto and his allies. But, like an infection that won’t go away, the idea is back and its current proponents are pushing some of the same fictions as their forebears in the 1940s.

The current land transfer movement’s most deceitful claim is that it is a movement at all. In an emailed statement, Jennifer Fielder, the CEO of the American Lands Council, writes in an email that land transfer has grown from “a small town dream into a bonafide national movement.” It hasn’t. Rather, it’s a little group of loud people trying to convince the broader public to abandon its birthright. It’s a top-down enterprise, and most of its participants are associated with one of three groups: Some, like Fielder, who currently serves as the vice chair of the Montana Republican Party, are creatures of the Republican establishment. Others, including founding American Lands Council board members, are prominent state-level ranching industry activists. And some, like the folks at ALEC and Federalism in Action, are linked to the far-right Koch network. The movement is make believe.

Fielder, for her part, calls this assessment “wrong.” She says her organization runs on “a whole lot of volunteerism” and was founded by “a handful of rural county commissioners who are fed up with the devastating effects of federal mismanagement of public lands in the west.”

Transfer supporters want to portray the feds as failures when it comes to land management, arguing that state governments could do better.

A second delusion is that land transfer has history on its side. The transfer “movement” holds up as its role model Thomas Hart Benton, a manifest destiny-obsessed, anti-Indian senator from the 19th century who helped force the federal government to relinquish its land holdings in the Midwest. Ken Ivory of Utah, who is quarterbacking the “Free the Lands” campaign, wants to instigate a similar handoff, and he and his allies have been calling for a modern-day Benton to emerge. Unfortunately for these history buffs, however, we no longer live in the 19th century when the feds handed over land to whatever swashbuckling homesteader showed up first. Congress, when it enabled the creation of the Western states, laid down language that prohibits the kind of land grab that the far right desires. Manifest destiny is over, and the federal lands belong to the American people. Covetous transfer activists can’t change those essential facts.

Yet the American Lands Council keeps trying, and has lately taken to plastering its Facebook page with images of “CLOSED” signs in front of parks and forests, signs that were almost entirely erected during the 2013 government shutdown. “If you can’t access it,” the group’s newsfeed proclaims, “it’s not yours.” Transfer supporters want to portray the feds as failures when it comes to land management, arguing that state governments could do better.

The irony is that land transfer’s most outspoken supporters in Congress, people like Senator Ted Cruz, were key players in the legislative fight that led to the government shutdown. It’s a classic right-wing tactic: Sabotage and starve government programs, then claim government doesn’t work. Now, the anti-government crusaders who embrace such tactics are trying to convince you that they will be responsible caretakers of the public domain.

Land transfer’s cynicism aside, the numbers simply don’t work. If Utah successfully gains control of the federal lands within its borders, according to a 2015 University of University study, it will cost the state roughly $247 million a year to manage the new lands. Meanwhile, the state will have to make up roughly $185 million each year in federal revenue sharing and subsidy programs. That means local legislators will have to somehow come up with $432 million a year to take care of their new land and plug the holes in the state budget. Some of those funds will come from development that is already occurring on the targeted land, but continuing mineral extraction on Utah’s public lands at current levels will not suffice to cover the full costs. By the study’s estimate, Utah would be left with a budget gap of as much as $100 million.

Transfer activists categorically deny that their work will lead to the closing off or sale of public lands. “If we can successfully get the legislation passed which we are pursuing,” writes Fielder in an email, “federal public lands will become state public lands to be managed in accordance with state and local plans.” But the huge cost of land management in a state like Utah would require massive new development on the public domain just to manage the land and satisfy state budget needs. Equally troubling, as per DeVoto, is that states are far more susceptible to political pressure than the feds.

Ken Ivory has not responded to requests for comment, but in an interview with a Nevada radio reporter in 2014 he offered this sneak peek inside his thinking: “There’s more than 150 trillion dollars in minerals locked up in the Western states,” he said, “more recoverable oil than the rest of the world combined locked up in federally controlled lands….”

That startling statement tells us what this fight is ultimately about: It’s about taking wealth away from the American people. If states gain sole control of such vast public resources, they will no longer be owned by all 320 million of us. And from that kind of robbery, it’s a short leap to the greater theft of turning over our land to private industry. In states like Utah, where oil, beef, and mining concerns have immense power, widespread privatization and outright enclosure would almost certainly be land transfer’s lasting legacy.

The 21st century land grabbers say they have a special right to our public places, and they’re trying to convince us of that too. During this bizarre and frightening nomination season, as our political parties prepare for the 2016 election, such fabrications seem to find fertile ground among the American people. With a far-right Congress in power and a Supreme Court in flux, fate might smile on land transfer. The only sure way to fight back is to mobilize the conservation movement, a real movement. In his time, DeVoto railed against “the forever-recurrent lust to liquidate the West.” That lust is alive and well today. The biggest land grab in recent American history — what Ivory calls a “modern-day Louisiana Purchase” — is in the works. Will we stop it?