Public land transfers debated

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

The transfer of federal lands to states could offer better access and management, but also raises legal issues. Moreover, problems associated with public lands management won’t go away under state ownership.

Both sides of the issues surrounding public land transfers were debated during a Grand Junction forum hosted by Club 20, a coalition of businesses, governments and individuals in Western Colorado.

Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, said the issues are important because federal lands comprise large portions of Colorado and other western states. More than 75 percent of the land in Mesa County is managed by the federal government.

“Many states are conducting feasibility studies, looking at whether transfer makes sense and determining how to address concerns associated with federal ownership of land,” Petersen said. “The only way the conversation will get started here is if Club 20 can facilitate it.”

Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese attended the forum and said Colorado should be involved in that conversation. “The first step is to join states like Utah, Nevada and Montana, and put pressure on the State Legislature to fund a feasibility study and form a task force made up of Coloradans who live in the affected areas,” Pugliese said.

The forum at the Doubletree Hotel featured Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative and president of the American Lands Council, an organization advocating for the transfer of public lands to the states; and Doug Young from the Keystone Center, a facilitation and mediation organization in Colorado. The Keystone Center also facilitates the meetings of a recently formed energy development task force.

Ivory said the transfer of public lands is about “ensuring better health, better access and better productivity of public lands.” He characterized transfer of ownership and management to the states as “the only solution big enough” to accomplish those aims. He also said that such land transfers were the only way to adequately address several state and national problems, including, according to Ivory, balancing the federal debt, securing domestic energy and precious metal supplies, providing for state funding of programs and protecting the health of and access to forests and other public lands.

Ivory said transfer plans wouldn’t include national parks, monuments or such congressionally designated lands such as wilderness areas.

Ivory cited the “equal footing” doctrine, which establishes that all states are to be treated as equal upon entering statehood. Congress disposed of federally controlled lands in all states east of Colorado, and Ivory believes the same rules should apply to all states.

Young countered that, legally speaking, if individual states wanted to gain control of federally owned lands “they should have done it at statehood. It is too late to do it today.”

As for the equal footing doctrine, Young said, “Some would argue that states with federally owned lands are more equal, that these lands are benefits to the states.”

Young also questioned the premise that state ownership would solve the problems of access, health and development. “The states will face the same environmental issues,” he said. “Transfer will not necessarily result in a solution.”

Ivory said states already manage millions of acres of public lands profitably and properly and they “make more than the federal agencies off of land they own.” He said states don’t face many of the legal and policy hurdles present at the federal level in terms of resource development. He cited as an example the Equal Access to Justice Act — the federal law that allows for environmental groups to receive payment of their legal fees if prevailing or settling in a lawsuit against the federal government — doesn’t apply at the state level.

The two panelists also fielded questions from the audience.

In response to a question regarding the possibility that transfer to the states would ultimately result in large scale privatization, Ivory said 95 percent of the proceeds of any sale would go to the federal government — a strong disincentive for states to sell off public lands.

Young said some mandates imposed on federal land management are actually beneficial, including the mandate that fees for using public lands be kept low.

Concerning the issue of cost, Ivory said the federal government pays millions of dollars to mismanage lands and that initial block grants to the states to manage the transfer would ultimately be financially beneficial to both parties.