The federal government owns large chunks of the West. It owns 65 percent of Utah, 69 percent of Alaska, and 83 percent of Nevada. Some Westerners see unfairness in that. They should not.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska recently slipped an item into a non-binding budget resolution, calling on the federal government to dispose of all its land other than the national parks and monuments. That would put U.S. national forests and wildlife refuges — from the Arctic to the Everglades — up for grabs. The Senate narrowly passed it.
Three years ago, Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, demanded that the federal government turn millions of its acres over to his state. Just like that.
Thing is, the land is not Utah’s to take. Federal lands do have an owner, the people of the United States. Those acres belong as much to residents of New Jersey and Ohio as they do to the folks in Salt Lake City.
Has anyone asked you whether you want to give away federal land? Me, neither.
Some insist that the laws creating the Western states required the federal government to hand over much of the land it retained. Not so, says University of Utah law professor Robert Keiter.
On the contrary. The Utah Enabling Act stated that the inhabitants of the proposed state had to “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.” That sounds pretty straightforward.
The property clause of the U.S. Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court cases hold that the U.S. keeps public lands in trust for all Americans. The government may keep, sell or give away the land — as well as decide what may be done on it.
Even if the federal government were obligated to unload that land, Keiter writes, “that obligation does not require the federal government to give land to the states.”
Sales of federally owned land should go to the highest bidder, with the proceeds dropped in the U.S. Treasury. If the state of Utah cares to participate in the auction, good luck to it.
In reality, the federal government has, over the years, disposed of many millions of its acres — some sold, some given to homesteaders, some handed to the states.
Western states didn’t care about this mostly parched land until the feds started building huge irrigation projects in the 1920s. Many states, including Utah, actually refused offers of public lands because they didn’t want to lose federal reclamation funds, mineral revenue, and highway money.
Federal ownership does have its advantages. About 330 million acres of federal lands are used for grazing cattle and sheep. Ranchers last year paid only $18.5 million in fees to use that land, whereas the feds appropriated $144 million for the grazing programs, according to a Center for Biological Diversity study.
“Had the federal government charged the average private forage market rate for non-irrigated lands in the western states,” the study says, “grazing receipts would have been on average $261 million, greatly exceeding annual appropriations.”
The oil and gas industries operating on public lands currently enjoy discounted royalty rates, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. We really ought to be charging them market rates.
Ronald Reagan famously said of the Panama Canal, “We built it. We paid for it. It’s ours.”
How did the federal government originally obtain title to the Western lands? Through treaties with France, Britain, and Mexico.
So American taxpayers did indeed pay for that land and made it more fruitful. That’s why it’s ours, all of ours.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr