The US Constitution (as written) forbids the federal government to own land beyond what it needs to function. It allows the federal government to own land for military bases and offices. No Amendment has ever been proposed or ratified to change the Constitution and allow the federal government the right to own land. – Norb Leahy
Last January, during what now seem like the halcyon days of the Presidential primaries, Donald Trump and his son Donald, Jr., sat down for an interview with at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show, in Las Vegas. The discussion, though brief, was . The elder Trump declared himself “very much into energy” and “very much into fracking and drilling,” called gun violence “a mental-health problem,” decried President Obama’s frequent use of executive orders (“you have to go through Congress”), and twice noted that New York City had awarded him one of its ultra-scarce concealed-carry handgun permits. The younger Trump talked about how “hunting and fishing kept me out of so much other trouble I would’ve gotten into throughout my life.”
On one point, however, the Trumps departed from G.O.P. dogma. Asked whether the federal government should transfer some of the six hundred and forty million acres of public land it manages to state control, Trump demurred. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” he said. Trump, Jr., spoke of “refunding” public lands in order to improve maintenance, and preserving hunting access by keeping them out of private hands. Compare that with the , released seven months later, which called it “absurd” for “official Washington” to control so much acreage, and enjoined Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation” redressing the issue.
Trump’s enthusiasm for energy development and his stated opposition to land transfers are shared by his pick for Secretary of the Interior, the Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, whose nomination was approved on Tuesday morning by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and will soon be taken up by the full Senate. “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public lands,” he said in response to a question from Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, during his recent committee hearings. “I can’t be more clear.” Zinke’s voting record shows the same.
For now, however, the “refunding” of public lands seems to be a low priority for the Administration. Last week, in one of a number of high-profile orders, Trump instituted a ninety-day hiring freeze across the executive brancha heavy blow to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and other chronically short-staffed agencies. According to by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, more than ninety per cent of wildlife-refuge managers report that they lack the staffing to fulfill their core conservation mission. One B.L.M. employee, responding to , said, “I have 1.8 million acres of land in my field office to manage and I am the only natural-resources staff member.” The Interior Department, which oversees these agencies, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Tuesday morning.
Congress, meanwhile, has been quietly pursuing the vision laid out in the G.O.P. platform. Current rules require that any legislation that costs the federal government money must be offset by budget cuts or new sources of revenue. Under a measure passed in early January as part of a House rules package, however, all federal-land transfers will be labelled as cost-free. Rob Bishop, the Utah congressman who proposed the measure, has said that fears of extensive land transfers are “bullshit,” and that he and his colleagues have simply eliminated a “stupid accounting trick”—a reference to the Congressional Budget Office’s method of assessing the value of public lands, long the subject of partisan disagreement. But Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, is one of the most powerful members of a movement dedicated to weakening federal management of Western lands, and that movement has lately pressed the advantages it gained in the November election.
Senator Orrin Hatch and Governor Gary Herbert, both of Utah, are backing a bid for the B.L.M. directorship by Mike Noel, a current state representative and former bureau staffer known for his fervent commitment to land transfers and his extreme disdain for his onetime employer. (Appointing Noel as B.L.M. director “would be like having an atheist teach Sunday school,” the former director Pat Shea .) Last week, Representative Jason Chaffetz, also of Utah, introduced a bill that would transfer 3.3 million acres of public land across ten states, drawing protests from conservation and hunting groups.
The political tension over federal land ownership goes back a long way. In the century or so after the founding of the republic, the U.S. government acquired 1.8 billion acres of land, culminating in 1867 with the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Some two-thirds of those acres were eventually disposed—transferred to state and private hands in order to raise money and encourage settlement. But, from the beginning, some lands were reserved for public schools, military bases, and other purposes deemed in the national interest.
In 1872, the creation of began a tradition of setting aside some federally managed land for recreation and conservation. Today, most public land lies within the borders of a dozen Western states, where it is variously grazed, mined, and logged by private permittees; covered with wind turbines, solar panels, and drilling rigs by the same; and protected from development in the form of national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. By law, it is managed through a public process that, while highly imperfect and often agonizingly slow, is intended to reflect the country’s changing values.
For generations, however, some Westerners—and their political leaders—have viewed this land as Washington’s hostage.
In the eighteen-nineties, when Congress established the first public-land forest reserves, one Colorado newspaper encouraged its readers to “arise in your might and protest this damnable outrage.” A Colorado cattleman told the Denver Chamber of Commerce that the reserves were an act of tyranny “not equaled since the days of William the Conqueror.” Eighty years later, outraged by a wave of new environmental laws, anti-federal Westerners mounted the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, bulldozing a road into a Utah canyon proposed for wilderness protection and issuing death threats to agency staffers. Ronald Reagan, campaigning in Utah in 1980, told supporters to “count me in as a rebel.”
The rebellion has resurfaced periodically since then, perhaps most dramatically early last year, when a group of armed extremists, led by the brothers , took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Oregon, for forty-one days. One of their first actions was to cover the refuge sign with one that said “Harney County Resource Center.” At the time, Bishop pointedly refused to condemn the takeover, instead blaming the situation on “what we feel is the abuse of individuals by the land-management agencies.” Trump, then on the campaign trail, was more critical, though back in 2014 he complimented the Bundys’ father, Cliven, who had been involved in an armed confrontation with law enforcement over his two-decade-long refusal to pay grazing fees on public lands in Nevada. “I like him,” Trump said. “I like his spirit. I like his spunk.”
There are plenty of grounds for civil disagreement over the management of public lands. But the argument for large-scale federal-land disposal makes little legal, financial, or practical sense. The government’s constitutional right to own and hold property by the Supreme Court. The fees that federal agencies charge for grazing, mining, and other extractive activities are heavily subsidized, and would almost certainly rise were the land transferred to states or counties.
The job of managing so many millions of acres would also place a heavy burden on state and local governments—two hundred and eighty million dollars a year just in Utah, according to a 2014 study by economists from three of the state’s universities. In addition, a mass land transfer would likely lead to environmental disaster, much as unregulated grazing of the Western range in the early nineteen-hundreds caused chronic erosion and helped create the Dust Bowl. The states’-rights argument is also morally dubious: in response to the Bundy brothers’ stated determination to give Malheur back to its rightful owners, Charlotte Roderique, the chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Native American tribe, said, drily, “I’m sitting here trying to write an acceptance letter for when they return all this land to us.”
The land-transfer movement is, at its heart, an expression of frustration. The arid interior West has never been an easy place to make a living off the land, and the Western myth of self-sufficiency has always been underwritten by federal subsidies and supported by federal infrastructure. In states like Utah and Nevada, where more than half the land within state borders is managed by the federal government, the feds have become a convenient scapegoat for an impossible climate, an unattainable cultural ideal, and a changing economy. To say that these objections are born of frustration, however, is not to say that they pose no threat. Frustration, as we saw on November 8th, can have real political consequences.