For as long as the United States has existed, there have been ongoing debates on how land, particularly federally owned land, should be used. In the past few decades, the focus has been on federal land ought to be used in the West, especially in states like Nevada, Oregon, and Utah, where the federal government owns a majority of the land. Starting in the early 1970with the Sagebrush Rebellion, residence in these states have fought to earn back their land from the federal government (Layzer 2016). Considering much of the federally owned land is vacant and cannot be built on, some of residence of Western states have historically felt that the land should be owned by either state or local governments or private organizations (Mantel 2016) IN early 2017, Utah representative Jason Chaffetz proposed a bill in which the state would sell off 3.3 million acres of federal land (Robinson 2017). This issue is one of many current debates about federal land usage, but sparked a large wave of both outlash and support from republicans and democrats alike, both of whom use these public lands for a variety of reasons.
The purpose of this literature review is to show the history behind federal land and the different relationships between federal and state land, to evaluate the theories and narratives about the proper usage and ownership of the land that have emerged, and to evaluate the potential effects of transferring federal land to the states. Ultimately, we will aim to show why the transfer of federal land to state and local governments is not a plausible solution to the issue of federal land ownership in the west.
Representative Jason Chaffetz’s 2017 proposal to transfer land was not the first-time federal land ownership was a pressing issue in Utah. A 2012 act, the Transfer of Public Lands Act, demanded that the federal government turn over a portion of their land to the state by the end of 2014. The belief was that the TLPA would not only force the federal government to turn over land to the state, but also spark a chain reaction of federal to state land exchange in the west (Lawton, 2014). The TLPA ultimately never substantiated and the courts found it to be unconstitutional (Lawton).
Conflict over federal land use sheds light on the two opposing sides of environmental justice: environmentalism and the more libertarian cornucopians. Understanding the values of landowners is just as important as understanding the efficacy of land acquisition in determining how the issue ought to be solved (Holtslag-Broekhof, 2016). The TLPA was a key event in determining the relationship between federal and state land ownership. The cornucopians have legitimate reasons to believe that the federal government has a “duty to dispose” of public lands, including the fact that state owned lands typically are 1) more economically successful and 2) more accessible to the states’ individual needs (Kochan, 2014; Jakus et al, 2017). The Sagebrush Rebellion was the first real movement by states/individuals to address the issue of private property and take back land from the federal government. Opponents, however, argue that the federal government does a sufficient job of managing its lands and that a transfer to state/local government would only lead to mismanagement and the privatization of lands that should otherwise be available to the public (Mantel, 2016). Each side has legitimate reasons for their causes, but it really boils down to whether or not the majority value public land or economic growth on those lands.
There is concern about the economic consequences and the ability of the states to manage and regulate the enormous pieces of land the federal government controls in western states. There is an argument that states could not handle the immense burden (Jakus 2017). There are also arguments that the transfer would benefit the economy (Kochan 2013),but this argument is not as persuasive as the argument that this transfer would bring no gain to the state and limited and short gain to the local economies as the economy moves away from the resources and that tourism from the publicly accessible land is more beneficial (Jakus 2107).
There are growing concerns about the ecological and environmental implications of not federally protecting the lands. It is unclear how the federal regulations for environmental protection will be implemented if these federal lands are transferred to the states. The flexibility could help meet individual conditions or it could cause environmental degradation (Day 20170. There is growing support on both sides of the isle for these protections (Eilperin 2017) (Enders 2017).
These demonstrate the importance of federal regulation to the public and the political consequences attempts at deregulating and transferring the federal land have. These articles raise the issue of whether the states have the resources to manage the federal lands that they have requested and whether the land would be helpful to the states. While the resources and revenue from the land could help the states, it would require unrealistic and aggressive expansion. This would cause an extreme backlash not only from Democrats, but also Republicans. In addition, the gain would only be short. The transfer would also cause irreversible ecological damage and the land most likely would not be reclaimed by the US government. The process and implementation of the transfer would be difficult for legal reasons and cause even more turmoil and backlash for state (Lawton and local governments as well as citizens (Holtslag-Broekhof 2016).
Day, Cathleen1. 2017. “Down by the Chesapeake Bay: Cooperative Federalism, Judicial Intervention, and the Boundary Between State Land Use and Federal Environmental Law.” Energy Law Journal 38(1): 253–67. Ebsco (February 9, 2018).
Eilperin, Juliet. 2017. “Facing Backlash, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz Withdraws Bill to Transfer Federal Land to the States.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/02/02/facing-backlash-utah-rep-jason-chaffetz-withdraws-bill-to-transfer-federal-land-to-the-states/ (February 9, 2018).
Enders, Caty. 2017. “Republicans Move to Sell off 3.3m Acres of National Land, Sparking Rallies.” the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/31/public-lands-sell-congress-bureau-management-chaffetz (February 9, 2018).
Holtslag-broekhof, S. M. et al. 2016. “Perceived (In)Justice of Public Land Acquisition.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics: 167–84. Ebsco (February 9, 2018)
“House Bill Would Sell 3.3 Million Acres of Federal Public Land.” Outdoor Life. https://www.outdoorlife.com/house-bill-would-sell-33-million-acres-federal-public-land (February 9, 2018).
Jakus, Paul M. et al. 2017. “Western Public Lands and the Fiscal Implications of a Transfer to States.” Land Economics 93(3): 371–89. Ebsco (February 9, 2018).
Kochan, Donald J. 2013. “Public Lands and the Federal Government’s Compact-Based ‘Duty to Dispose’: A Case Study of Utah’s H.B. 148-The Transfer of Public Lands Act.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2013(5): 1133–90. Ebsco (February 9, 2018).
Lawton, Nick. 2014. “Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act: Demanding a Gift of Federal Lands.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 16(1): 1–37. Ebsco (February 9, 2018)
Layzer, Judith. 2016. “Federal Grazing Policy.” In The Environmental Case: translating Values into Policy. Los Angeles: CQ Press.
Mantel, Barbara. 2016. “Managing Western Lands: Should the U.S. Turn over Federal Lands to the States?” CQ Researcher 26(16): 361–84.
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