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Shooting Holes in Land Transfer

Grand Canyon

At the core of the raging public lands debate are two opposing views of federal lands. Transfer advocates believe the federal government owns the land. Transfer opponents believe the American people own the land which is held in trust by the government, managed by various agencies.

The truth is, regardless which view is taken, long-held principles outlined by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) require these lands be managed in the best national interest.

Anti-Federalists claim that the government is not entitled to own land. Even if you subscribe to that interpretation of The Property Clause (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2), FLPMA still requires any disposal of land to use the best interests of the American people as a guiding principle. So let’s walk that path for a bit.

Residents of a state aren’t sole owners of the public land within its boundaries. That land belongs to all Americans despite which ownership view you believe. The federal government is a representative democracy, it is the people.  And land has value despite any “fuzzy” accounting rules congress tries to enact. One need only look at the free market where land has a monetary value and is bought and sold. It certainly would not be in the people’s best interest to give away, i.e. transfer, a valuable asset without proper compensation.

Anti-Federalists believe the states should manage and own that land. So why do we not see states reaching for their checkbooks? Why isn’t the movement referred to as “Public Land Sale?” If sale was determined to be in the best national interest then fair market value would be the guideline (outlined in FLPMA Sec. 203d).

Since the congressional delegation from Utah seems to be spearheading the land transfer movement (see Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Rob Bishop, Rep. Jason Chaffetz), let’s quickly assess the value of land in their state:

Per acre values are subjective and should be based on the market, but let’s use a general number of $3,000 per acre for U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acres. That’s being very generous to prospective buyers since the BLM administers five National Monuments in the state which would likely have a much higher market value. We the people would certainly value National Park land much higher – Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion – truly national treasures that most would call priceless. For the sake of this exercise let’s value them at $15,000 per acre, an absolute bargain.

USFS 8.1M acres x $3,000 = $24,300,000,000
BLM 22.8M acres x $3,000 = $68,400,000,000
National Parks 2.1M acres x $15,000 = $31,500,000,000

By this rudimentary calculation our lands in the state of Utah are worth $124.2 billion. This doesn’t account for upgrades to the land, infrastructure, ongoing contracts, etc. But for the purposes of this exercise the basics should be fine.

Luckily Utah has a AAA credit rating. How many acres would the state of Utah, or any other for that matter, like to purchase for the right to manage the resource? The answer is none, at least not at fair market value. But who doesn’t want to add a substantial asset to the balance sheet for free?

Currently Utah has $35.7 billion in outstanding debt. Total annual tax collections are around $6.3 billion and annual federal aid to the general fund accounts for $4 billion. Utah’s last annual budget totaled $15.1 billion. The funds to pay for Americans’ land are going to come from…..

It’s not there. And the funds to manage 31 million acres don’t exist either.

Representative Bishop basically concedes a lack of management funds in his latest budget request of $50 million to give states that receive his planned land transfer to ease their financial burden.

It’s time for an analogy. Let’s break this down into bird hunters’ language:

You own a fine double shotgun, your prized possession. You have a gunsmith who keeps it tuned and functioning. Lately the gunsmith has made a few changes to the trigger that you don’t like. So you find a person with no money and little interest in shooting and give them the shotgun along with $50 to take it off your hands. Wonder what they’ll do with that gun? It doesn’t really matter because you don’t own it anymore.

This is exactly the kind of illogical behavior the public land transfer movement is asking you to support.

The attack on public lands is about profit motive, plain and simple. If it were otherwise – if this were a matter of management or constitutional jurisdiction – then start calling this movement land sale and state governments should be showing the American people how purchase funds will be generated and long-term plans for the land.

There will be those who support the idea of a land sale even when it makes no fiscal sense for their states. But the vast majority of Americans consider our public lands a priceless asset that transcends any monetary value. For them sale or transfer isn’t an option, it’s tantamount to treason. Just like a bird hunter will never sell that fine double gun; it’s to be left to their children and hopefully their children’s children.


Colorado College Public Lands Poll


Join the conversation and sign the petition to #keepitpublic at SportsmensAccess.org – Click Here.

 

The Battle for Your Land Draws Nigh

Bald Eagle

For those not paying close attention to politicians over the last couple of years — at this point many of us would actually like to completely ignore the political circus — there are a group of D.C. elites attempting to swindle the American people of their land.

The effort is led by a couple of robber baron, Utah Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, vocal opponents of public lands for some time. Chaffetz is now sponsoring a bill to sell 3.3 million acres of the people’s land that he deems “suitable for disposal.” For context, 3.3 million acres is roughly 5,100 square miles or an area the size of Connecticut.

The full text of H.R.621 is not yet available though this summary offers a glimpse of the rubbish to follow:

H.R.621 – To direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell certain Federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, previously identified as suitable for disposal, and for other purposes.

According to polls, residents of the state of Utah seem fairly evenly split on the issue of public land transfer. But Utahns must recognize that being residents of the state and stewards of the area, they are not the sole owners. This land is owned by all Americans and managed on our behalf by good people in the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Parks.

Both national polls and those in key western states point to a solid majority of Americans firmly against any transfer of public lands.

It’s time to let your representatives know your thoughts on this issue. Do not let your opinion go unheard while your land is quietly sold to the highest bidder. If you are a hiker, mountain biker, nature photographer, camper, hunter, fisher or outdoorsmen this issue will define the future of access to wild places in this country.

Be sure to add your name to the Sportsmen’s Access Petition.


Also contact Representatives Chaffetz and Bishop directly to make them aware of your opposition.

Jason Chaffetz

Rob Bishop

 

Twitter @RepRobBishop

Email

Phone (202) 225-0453

(Chaffetz’s social media feeds are currently being consumed by #keepitpublic sentiments. Bishop seems too disconnected to actively participate in social discourse.)

**UPDATE: February 2, 2017

After receiving a landslide of criticism across the entire political spectrum, Representative Chaffetz  has wisely decided to withdraw his land transfer bill.

Rep. Chaffetz reverses course

Hunting in the Shadow of Roosevelt

Elkhorn Ranch North Dakota

When I hunt in North Dakota, my thoughts often drift to Teddy Roosevelt’s days at Elkhorn Ranch — He named his Dakota home for a pair of locked elk skulls he found at the site. Today, centrally located within the million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Elkhorn is a great place to visit while upland hunting within this expanse. Sharptail still congregate on the bluffs and Ring-necked Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge have invaded the territory.

You’re confronted with a landscape of stark contrast. Fractured buttes and rolling bluestem, cottonwood culverts and the hellish infrastructure of fossil fuel harvesting which I imagine has Teddy’s grave in Oyster Bay sufficiently churned .

In the winter of 1884 after suffering the loss of both his wife and his mother within the span of 24 hours, Roosevelt retreated to the torn beauty of the Badlands for solace. The solitude, and toil of a new cattle business and pursuit of plains game provided the healing or at least sufficient distraction from depths of darkness.

Even the name badlands casts doubt on the therapeutic essence of this territory. Until you step into it. Unique views stretch to the horizon at the top of each new hill drawing you further into the folds, farther away from anything recognizable. The one benefit to the oil wells, they are unsightly beacons that can lead you back to “civilization”. At times I think I prefer the prospect of being lost. And when the setter and lab steer into the cuts where grouse gather out of the wind to dine on juniper berry, the possibility of becoming a permanent fixture of this forgotten landscape is at hand.

For most Americans lost is no longer a part of the lexicon. We’re digitally connected, plugged-in to one another and the safety and warmth of a glowing screen. And I can see the benefits. But a shrinking world needs the counter-balance of Badlands, of vast spaces unspoiled by humans. Fear of your surroundings, the inconsequence of your being, the brilliance of unyielding harsh landscapes offer perspective. Roosevelt knew the value of this much like I do. Rambling over stratified buttes and fractured limestone for hours, aware that the distances covered on foot are nothing but burnt legs and bootprints to be erased in the first strong wind. Watching late season birds flush wild at the hint we’ve chosen their direction and disappear on the horizon or so deeply into ravines the prospect they can be rousted or the energy to undertake it are in doubt.

Prairie fowl were so thick in this area at the end of the 19th century that Roosevelt could walk out his front door and shoot the heads off a few “chickens” roosting in the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River with his lever action Winchester Model 1876 — a roast bird breakfast. Though Teddy was a notorious bad shot, peruse his auto-biographies and you get the sense that what he lacked in accuracy he made up for in frequency.

Despite gunning, game hogging and an awkward spectacled appearance that prompted many in the Dakota territories to label him a “dude”,  Roosevelt still rose to iconic status as a conservationist. His determination and ethic created the National Park system in this country and his role in crafting the North American Conservation Model is well documented. He was the first politician to raise wildlife to a national stage. It’s a legacy for all Americans that extends well beyond just sportsmen. Annually, hundreds of millions of visitors frequent the National Parks, National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and public lands that Roosevelt instigated. For all his other accomplishments, Rough Riders to the Square Deal among them, there’s little doubt that the legacy of wildlife and wild places has touched the most people.

Roosevelt, a lifelong adventurer, likely left few canyons untouched within the boundaries of the Grassland south to the town of Medora. While our pack of dogs disappears in the sage and brambles of the flats around Elkhorn, It’s seems safe to assume few areas within these million acres remained hidden from Teddy, either herding cattle or pursuing plains game. Those are certainly big footsteps. As we’re faced with the prospects of rising costs of continuing the North American Conservation Model and the pressures of human encroachment and consumption, truly wild places and wildlife seem more and more finite.

The ability to wander, chase birds and get lost with friends and rowdy running dogs in the same expanse that TR did 120 years ago is pretty amazing. Thankfully not all things have disappeared in the name of progress.

Shooting one of Roosevelt’s birds gives me a glimmer of hope that a legacy that was so hard fought may still survive the hair-brained, misguided ideas of lesser men. I believe I’ll side with the likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Roosevelt holding wildlife and wild places in the public trust, until someone more enlightened appears — doubtful that happens in my lifetime.