The New York Times: OP-ED: The Land Grab Out West

By:  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

ALBUQUERQUE — LIKE a rerun of a bad Western, the battle over ownership of America’s public lands has revived many a tired and false caricature of those of us whose livelihoods and families are rooted in the open spaces of the West.

With a script similar to one used last spring by the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, a small contingent of opportunistic politicians is vowing to dispose of America’s national forests, conservation lands and open space. You may remember Mr. Bundy, whose refusal to pay more than $1 million in overdue grazing fees instigated a dangerous standoff with law enforcement officials. The confrontation made him the face of what some say is a renewed Sagebrush Rebellion to turn over America’s public lands to state control.

Mr. Bundy does not represent the West, however. And the campaign to transfer to the states or even sell off our shared lands should not be mistaken for the mainstream values of Westerners whose way of life depends on the region’s land and water.

Utah was the first state to embark on this course. In 2012, the state’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, signed a law demanding (though unsuccessfully so far) that the federal government transfer to the state more than 20 million acres owned by United States taxpayers. This included national forests and grasslands and such jewels as Lake Powell and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.

In turn, the legislatures in Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming have created task forces to study the idea, though similar efforts in Colorado and my home state of New Mexico have thus far failed.

Proponents argue that states are better equipped to manage the West’s natural wonders than the United States Forest Service and other national land management agencies. What they don’t say is that their proposal would raise the possibility that some of the lands would be turned over to the highest bidder and that Western taxpayers would be saddled with the costs of overseeing the rest.

Tellingly, while the Utah legislation excluded national parks and wilderness areas from lands that would be transferred to the state, the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was not excluded. That may have something to do with a 1997 report by the Utah Geological Survey that concluded that Grand Staircase-Escalante “includes some of the most energy-rich lands in the lower 48 states.”

The costs of managing these lands could bankrupt state governments. Over $3.9 billion was appropriated for federal wildfire management alone for the 2014 fiscal year. The only way states could foot the bill for administering America’s public lands would be to raise taxes or sell or lease large expanses to developers and other private interests, including oil, gas, timber and mining companies.

This would also result in a proliferation of locked gates and no-trespassing signs in places that have been open to the public and used for generations. This would devastate outdoor traditions like hunting, camping and fishing that are among the pillars of Western culture and a thriving outdoor recreation economy.

Like many New Mexicans, my 11-year-old son and I just returned from an autumn elk hunt on national forest land. The bull elk that we brought home will feed our family for most of the coming year, but the experience of backpacking into the high country, sleeping on the ground and hearing the elk bugle around us will feed my son’s imagination for years to come. If these lands end up in private hands, there is no guarantee that we will be able to go back year after year with the open access that Western sportsmen cherish.

These types of land-grab schemes are as old as the railroads. But the chief salesman for this latest land seizure campaign, the American Lands Council, is having some success pitching state legislators on “model legislation” to enable these transfers. The legislation was drafted with the help of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which receives financing from the utility industry and fossil-fuel producers.

It is unclear whether such legislation is even enforceable.

Still, even the Republican National Committee has bought the snake oil the American Lands Council is selling. Last January, the committee endorsed the transfer of public lands to the states. In addition, the United States House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, endorsed the outright sale of our public lands.

Like other Westerners who value our shared lands as assets to be used, enjoyed and passed to future generations, I find this dispiriting to see. And for an overwhelming majority of public land users in the West who pay their grazing fees and play by the rules, the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of Cliven Bundy and the American Lands Council is not so much a movement as another special-interest-financed boondoggle.

Admittedly, the federal government does not do a perfect job of managing America’s public lands. There are real problems that need to be solved, like creating more access points for recreation, hunting and fishing, as my colleagues and I are proposing to do with a bill I introduced called the HUNT Act. But these are problems we can solve because of the very fact that these lands are public and we each have a voice in their management. America’s forests, wildlife refuges and conservation lands are part of the fabric of our democracy. Let’s keep them that way.