Not Everyone out to Steal Public Land Wears Camo

Inside the nationwide movement to privatize federal land holdings

By Dashka Slater

June 6, 2016

Members of the Pacific Patriots Network walk to a meeting with the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

Members of the Pacific Patriots Network walk to a meeting with the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. | Photo by Jim Urquhart/Reuters Pictures

When the last four antigovernment militants who had taken over Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge surrendered to FBI agents in February, the residents of Harney County breathed a sigh of relief. The armed intruders who had spent 41 days occupying the refuge had done plenty of damage during their takeover, including digging a trench and filling it with trash and feces. Their occupation cost county taxpayers more than half a million dollars and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service $5.7 million. All that was left to do was to clean up the mess.

Or so it seemed. But even with the Bundys and other militants behind bars, the cause they championed is moving forward in western statehouses and the nation's capital. Armed with cookie-cutter legislation rather than guns and explosives, far-right lawmakers are advancing the same wing-nut argument as the Malheur malcontents: The federal government has no claim to public lands. 

"You, the people of Nevada, not Washington bureaucrats, should be in charge of your own land," Senator Ted Cruz said in a presidential campaign ad that aired in the state. (At present, more than 80 percent of Nevada belongs to the federal government.) "If you trust me with your vote, I will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada's lands to its rightful owners—its citizens."

Cruz was not alone in making such promises. In 2012, the Utah state legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demanded that the U.S. government hand over the 34 million acres of federal public lands within state borders by the end of 2014. When the Feds failed to oblige, Utah's legislature allocated $4.5 million toward what is anticipated to be a $14 million lawsuit against the Department of the Interior.

"We are in the Second Great Revolution, and it's a revolution of ideologies," said Utah state representative Ken Ivory, the bill's author. "But the battle is not being fought with bombs and with bullets. It's being fought with delta smelt. It's being fought with sage grouse. . . . It's being fought with trees."

Antigovernment revolutionaries want the natural resources on and under public lands to be exploited—for the benefit, they say, of the local population. "The states in the West have trillions of dollars in abundant mineral resources," says the website for the American Lands Council. "Yet, these states are perpetually among the last in the nation in per-pupil funding for education. This is because under federal control, access has been greatly denied for the multiple use of our public lands."

Ivory was recently named Legislator of the Year by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the regressive legislation factory bankrolled by the Koch brothers, the Coors family, and a number of large corporations. ALEC provides legislative blueprints for the "land seizure" bills that are flaring up like brush fires in statehouses across the West.  

"We are seeing a barrage of anti-public-lands bills coming through, fast and furious," says Jonathan Oppenheimer, staff lobbyist at the Idaho Conservation League. In just one week in March, three such bills were introduced in the Idaho state legislature, including one labeling public lands a nuisance. "The end game," he says, "is to try to erode the public's broad support for public lands."

These bills are based on a faulty reading of history in which the western states were promised ownership and control of federal lands when they were admitted into the Union. This fantasy laid the foundation for Utah's 2012 public lands act (which the state has not yet attempted to carry out) and similar legislation in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming, as well as resolutions passed by the Republican National Committee and the National Association of Counties. 

Despite its popularity on right-wing websites, the idea that the federal government's land holdings are illegal is not supported by conventional interpretations of the law. University of Utah law school professors Robert B. Keiter and John C. Ruple analyzed the legal underpinnings of the transfer-of-public-lands movement and concluded that "the federal government has absolute control over federal public lands, including the constitutional authority to retain lands in federal ownership."

Voters agree. Ninety-seven percent of respondents to polls in Idaho and Colorado, for example, felt that public lands were an essential part of their quality of life. But the anti-public-lands movement is well-enough funded to wait for its theories to percolate up through the judicial system. In other words, says Greg Zimmerman, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, "the future of our public lands hinges on who sits in Congress, who sits on the Supreme Court."  


Public lands need more protection, not less. The Nevada desert where anti-public-lands leader cliven Bundy illegally grazed his cattle is part of the proposed new Gold Butte National Monument. The area has amazing geological formations, countless opportunities for outdoor recreation, and rich cultural resources belonging to the Southern Paiute Nation that date back thousands of years.

Ask President Barack Obama to permanently protect it!