Alarming Effort to “Dispose of” Our Public Lands

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), several Western states and assorted special interests are pushing to have our federal public lands “disposed of” by transferring them to their respective states. After that, state commissions would then determine how the land will be used and how much will be sold off to private individuals.

This irresponsible plan would reverse over 100 years of prudent investment in safeguarding our nation’s natural treasures for the benefit of all Americans—present and future. It would abandon Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation vision and lay waste to the conservative stewardship ethic that inspired him and prompted countless others to build on his legacy.

Sound preposterous? Well apparently not to the Republican National Committee (RNC). In January the RNC adopted a resolution, modeled after an ALEC resolution, calling on the federal government to transfer its public lands in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska to the states.

The language of the RNC resolution makes it clear that the motivation here is to subject more of our natural treasures to various forms of development. It specifically complains about “locked up mineral value” and advocates opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge up to oil development.

ALEC, which is a libertarian-oriented think tank, likes to peddle this natural treasure disposal scheme as a federal obligation to the Western states. The reality is that the U.S. government has always held the title to these lands and preserved that title in state charter language. The U.S. government then decided which lands to give the states and which lands to hold in public trust for the benefit of all Americans.

Former U.S. Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) recently wrote about this in the Deseret News and speaking of the Western states noted: “I don’t see merit in the argument that the federal government now has a legal obligation to give them “back” something they never owned.”

Despite its shaky legal footing, the proposal is dangerous. By trying to convince people that federal control of Western public lands is somehow illegitimate and unjust, its advocates are essentially trying to stir up another Sagebrush Rebellion movement that further polarizes natural resource management. Even if ALEC and others never build the necessary political support for the plans stated goal of federal divestment, the effort could prompt land management concessions that favor development.

Theodore Roosevelt warned of such efforts and the “short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things.”

Before ALEC’s plan can gain more momentum, those of us who use and cherish our National Parks, Forests, Wildlife Refuges and other protected landscapes need to strongly voice our collective opposition and expose the effort for what it truly is.

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