Public Lands—Where Do Things Stand?

There is a groundswell of support for public lands—but the threat is real and we need to let our elected officials know that public lands should not be used as a punching bag.

Public lands define Idaho. National forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, national monuments, wildlife refuges and other public properties cover 62% of our state’s land mass.

According to a 2012 poll nearly 3 out of every 4 Idahoans agree that the federal government does a good job managing our public lands—contrary to assertions from land grabbers that the majority of Idahoans would prefer to see these lands transferred into state or private hands.

More recently, in March 2017, nearly 3,000 public land users showed up on the steps of the Idaho State Capitol with a simple message for Idaho’s lawmakers—keep public lands in public hands.

Grandmothers, students, motorized users, anglers, business owners, hunters, Native Americans, bird watchers, veterans and nature lovers all showed up to advocate for public lands.

After years of effort by public lands takeover advocates, the only thing they appear to be accomplishing is bringing together opponents of the idea. There is simply no groundswell of public support for a seizure of public lands.

In fact, it’s just the opposite. There is a groundswell of support for public lands. In Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming, citizens are packing committee hearings, legislative town halls and the marble hallways of state capitols to deliver a common message: public lands are our common ground.

During the 2017 Idaho legislative session, only one bill was introduced that was associated tangentially with the land grab. It would have mandated the sale of state lands. The bill didn’t even have a hearing.

If public lands were to be transferred to the state, the fear of a sell-off would be well-founded. Since its statehood, Idaho has sold off 41% of all the acres granted to the state. What’s more, a recent report from ICL and The Wilderness Society found that many of those lands appear to have been sold off in violation of constitutional limits.

It’s not only ordinary citizens speaking up. Recent events in Boise, hosted by the University of Idaho Law Review and the Andrus Center, have included presentations from esteemed constitutional law experts including John Leshy (former top lawyer at the U.S. Department of the Interior) and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. They both emphasized that there is no credible basis for a constitutional argument to compel the federal government to cede lands to the states. Instead, they refer to established Supreme Court precedent that Congress’ power to retain and manage public lands is “without limitation.”

So, if it’s in Congress’ hands we can all rest easy, right? Not quite.

There were cheers from public land lovers earlier this year when Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) withdrew his bill that would have auctioned off up to 3 million acres across the West. Unfortunately, an equally dangerous bill from Rep. Chaffetz would forbid U.S. Forest Service and BLM law enforcement on public lands, and hand it over to county sheriffs who already struggle to cover their own territories.

Other measures could result in “no trespassing” signs popping up in your favorite camping spot. These include a proposal by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) to authorize a transfer of 2 million public acres to each state, and a budgetary measure that passed during the first week of the congressional session, offered by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT)  that would eliminate any need to offset the value of any ceded lands. So far, Rep. Young’s bill hasn’t moved out of committee, but the threat is real and the only way to stop anti-public lands efforts is to let our elected officials know that public lands should not be used as a punching bag.

Idaho’s Rep. Simpson is the only member of Congress who has clearly outlined his position on the issue, emphasizing at a recent conference in Boise that “public lands and the access to public lands in Idaho are vital.”

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been largely silent on this critical issue, but have supported efforts to restrict the president’s use of the Antiquities Act.

In past years, Rep. Labrador introduced a bill to transfer management of public lands to the states, but this session he has yet to reintroduce the measure.

So, if you want to see public lands remain public, let your elected officials know where you stand—today!

Ultimately, the best defense against the public lands takeover is a good offense. This can take many shapes, but the one that is currently paying the highest dividends is through meaningful collaborative efforts. By sitting down with other public land users—who might value the land for different reasons—we can develop a shared vision for the future of our public lands and find lasting solutions that protect our public lands for their rightful owners, the American people.

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