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Selling a Birthright: What would the West be like without its federal lands?

– by Chris Madson

I wonder when hunters and anglers in the West are finally going to take to the streets.

For 30 years, a handful of special interests has been trying to steal the public’s forests and rangelands. The faces of the Sagebrush Rebellion are shirttail bandits like Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has spent a lifetime raping public rangeland in southern Nevada and has flouted federal law and court orders for the better part of 20 years, but Bundy and his confederates couldn’t get news coverage next to the comic strips in the Pahrump, Nevada, Valley Times if it weren’t for the potent financial, political, and legal backing they get from a much different band of activists — the billionaire supporters of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

With the big money behind it, the Sagebrush Rebellion simply won’t die.

In the spring of 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a bill calling on the federal government to “transfer title of public lands to the state on or before December 31, 2014.” In 2013, the Idaho legislature authorized a two-year interim committee to “study the process for the State of Idaho to acquire title to and control of public lands controlled by the federal government in the state.” Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming have since passed similar bills, and the Colorado and New Mexico legislatures are considering their own versions.

Of course, the states can’t force the federal government to give up its holdings; a move like that would require approval from Congress in Washington. And it’s clear that the same forces that are working to shove proposals through state legislatures are at work in Congress as well. In late March, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would help fund initiatives “to sell or transfer to a State or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument,” which is to say, any national forest land, BLM holding, or national wildlife refuge said state or local governments might want.

This isn’t the work of a renegade bunch of disgruntled brush poppers. It’s a well-funded, carefully coordinated effort to disinherit 318 million Americans inflicted on us by a tiny group of billionaire outlanders. The injury would be felt across the country, but it would be most painful for the people who have chosen to live, often at great personal cost, in the 12 western states that contain most of the nation’s public land. More than 1.8 million of these westerners hunt, and the overwhelming majority of that hunting occurs on national forests and BLM rangelands. More than 5.3 million westerners fish, and while a solid proportion of these anglers pursue their sport on the ocean or on large reservoirs, many, if not most, spend at least some their time fishing on federal land.

So what would ALEC’s brave new West be like for the average resident and tourist? A poorer place ….

Condition of rangeland and forest

Most Monday mornings, I have coffee with three retired biologists who spent long careers with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The other day, I asked them how well they thought state lands had been managed in Wyoming over the last 30 years. About all I got was a snort.

Most of the land the state currently owns is leased to private interests. The Office of State Lands and Investments has neither the manpower nor the inclination to keep track of how those lessees are managing the state property under their control, which means that much of it is routinely abused for short-term profit.

Even the federal authorities struggle to control the excesses of commercial operations that hold leases on public land. In 2011, the BLM itself reported that nearly 93 million acres of the pasture it manages could stand improvement. That’s about 60 percent of BLM rangeland. Not even BLM officials, with the full weight of the federal government behind them, could make sure that public lands were being managed properly if that meant confronting a leaseholder.

I’ve personally seen a sheep operation leave its flocks on a Forest Service grazing allotment for more than three weeks after they were supposed to be removed. This happened repeatedly over several years, and was no accident. The operator was simply stealing public forage, and there was no one around who could force him to stop.

If federal lands reverted to the state, would state authorities have the personnel or the inclination to act against an operator who violated the terms of his lease? Hard experience with state lands suggests the problem would be far worse.

Timber management on national forests has gone through several phases since the Forest Service was created. In 1905, the Service allowed 68 million board feet to be cut. By 1924, the harvest had increased to 1.1 billion board feet. In 1987, it peaked at 12.7 billion board feet, but soon after, the volume dropped as opposition to large-scale clearcuts and the construction of access roads intensified. These days, timber harvest on the national forests hovers around 2.5 billion board feet a year.

Large clearcuts are good for the timber industry and generally bad for the forest, since they encourage soil erosion, degrade water quality, often delay regeneration of the forest, reduce cover for many species of wildlife, and can actually increase the risk of wildfires when large piles of tinder-dry slash are left behind. On the other hand, small clearcuts and selective cutting may be useful tools in managing for wildlife and reducing the risk of wildfire — their value depends on what the public wants from a forest and how the timber harvest is carried out.

Striking a balance between timber yield and other management objectives on national forests has been the subject of lively debate for 50 years or more, and the resulting public dialogue has led to nuances in forest management that would have been unimaginable in the 1960s. I’m not an unalloyed fan of federal timber management, but I have no faith at all in the outcome of similar debates if they are controlled entirely at the state or local level. Without a federal presence to lend some measure of balance to the discussion, industrial interests will prevail.

Energy and mineral development

Over the last 20 years, several researchers have studied the effects of oil and gas production on wildlife in the sage. The results of these investigations are sobering. Massive drilling for natural gas began on the Mesa near Pinedale, Wyoming, in 2001. Over the next 12 years, the mule deer population there dropped 42 percent while the wintering populations on less disturbed winter ranges two to 10 miles to the west showed no decline.

Researchers have found that pronghorn are avoiding the heaviest drilling and vehicle traffic on the Mesa, and still other investigators have found that sage grouse stop using areas within three miles of roads and production sites, apparently because of the noise.

The gas field on the Mesa, along with several other major oil and gas fields in Wyoming, is on BLM land and under nominal BLM management. It’s clear that the federal agency had little influence over the decision to develop these fields, but it has at least been able to force a review of environmental impacts, require ongoing research on lingering effects, and mandate some contribution by the energy companies to fund habitat management for affected wildlife elsewhere.

It’s hard to believe that any of these measures would have been required if the state had been in charge when the leases were developed.

Oil and gas are by no means the only valuable commodities under federal lands in the West. Wyoming is now the leading producer of coal in the country, and as domestic demand has flattened, the state is actively pursuing the possibility of shipping coal to the Far East.

Uranium is once again in demand, and a mining operation for rare earth minerals is scheduled to open in Wyoming’s Bear Lodge Mountains as early as 2017. The fight over the Canadian proposal to mine gold and silver in and around the Gallatin National Forest at the headwaters of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone is still fresh in many minds, and huge deposits of oil shale under BLM holdings will attract attention from industry as soon as the price of oil heads back up. The gigantic Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy projects by themselves will cover nearly 220,000 acres.

Finding a way to balance the demand for these resources with the long-term health of wild land and wildlife will be hard enough, even with federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Management Policy Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and the Endangered Species Act in place to force a semblance of rational decision-making. In the absence of such environmental laws, big business would be free to use its considerable economic and political power to cut every corner and get on with maximizing profit at the expense of the land and its people.

Access

Few management questions on the public domain have generated more heated debate than the issue of access. Whether the proposal at hand is as sweeping as a new million-acre wilderness or as local as a locked gate during hunting season, people on several sides of the proposal are likely to end up fighting mad before a final decision is made.

Most westerners who are familiar with federal lands recognize that there is a balance to be struck when it comes to access. Few of us would be happy if we had to park our trucks at the forest boundary and walk wherever we wanted to go on several million acres, but nearly all of us recognize that, left without regulation, travelers on federal land would pioneer a two-track into every square foot of national forest and BLM land. We know what kind of damage that would cause, not only to vegetation and streams but to the experience most of us come to the public domain to find.

Research at the Starkey Experimental Forest in Oregon has proved what nearly every experienced elk hunt knows: Successful elk hunting begins where the road ends. Elk and most other big game animals have learned from hard experience to stay away from roads. Hunting is just better in the backcountry. That goes for fishing, too — any western angler knows he’d better walk half a mile up the creek before he starts to cast.

The current mix of road and roadless is about as even a compromise as we’re likely to have. It ought to be — we’ve spent two generations wrangling over it. People with the cash and inclination can get to a lot of good places by internal combustion engine. People who are willing to pay for their solitude with sweat instead of gasoline also have that option.

I don’t think the balance we’ve struck would survive if federal lands were turned over to the states. There are already far too many people breaking the law with their ATVs, driving where the law says they should be walking. Without roadless rules and credible enforcement to back them, public land would be overrun with vehicles, and the opportunity to enjoy a day of silence in the backcountry would be lost forever, simply because there would BE no backcountry.

Fish and game

Federal land in the West is far from perfect wildlife habitat. The concessions that have been made in the name of multiple use; the relentless pressures brought by special interests, from Exxon to Wild Horse Annie, have left the nation’s forests and rangelands in less-than-optimum condition. But if the feds can’t hold out against these pressures, I’m sure I don’t know how anyone can expect the states to do better. If federal lands were given to the states, wildlife habitat, both terrestrial and aquatic, would inevitably deteriorate as the demands of special interests were served. There would be less fish and game.

And what was left would spend more time on private property. For several years, I’ve hunted elk on a little mountain range close to the exact center of nowhere. The range itself is BLM ground; the sagebrush flats on all four sides are private land, jealously posted. The mountains aren’t a bad place to find an elk, if you’re willing to get down into the canyons and pack your quarters a thousand vertical feet and a mile or two back to the truck. Better get him in the first three days, though — after that, the whole herd will be down on the private ground, laughing at you. If the access on public land were better, the elk would just move across the fence sooner.

I doubt that any of the western states could summon the will or budget to enforce restrictions on access, should they find a way to lay claim to the federal estate. Without the enforcement, hunting and fishing opportunity would migrate onto private land.

There are a few hunters and anglers who are lucky enough to have connections on a big ranch or two. Some of them may be thinking that more fish and game on private land could be a great thing. I wish them luck with that approach. As quality hunting and fishing become rarer, their value increases. Half a dozen times in my life, I’ve lost a great hunting spot on private land because the owner decided to lease it. I can’t fault such decisions because they mean that the owner may be encouraged to invest more time and money in his wildlife habitat, but the trend clearly favors the hunter who has enough money to lease hunting privileges or buy top-quality game cover outright. I can’t afford to go very far in the bidding for this kind of opportunity, and I doubt many other hunters can, either. This is the way a uniquely American system of hunting becomes Europeanized.

When it comes down to a confrontation between the interests of thousands of hunters and other conservationists on one hand and the interests of even a single landowner on the other, the states have a long, sad record of siding with the landowner. In Wyoming, we now have a law that orders the Game and Fish Department to remove a herd of bighorn sheep if it interferes in any way with a domestic sheep operation.

The bighorn is the West’s rarest and most spectacular game animal. Before settlement, there were as many as 2 million bighorns in North America; now, there are about 50,000. Hunting licenses for bighorns are prized and, at auction, have brought more than $100,000 each. Over the last century, tens of millions of acres of bighorn habitat have been stripped of their wild sheep to make way for domestics. None of this seems to make the least difference to the Wyoming Legislature or its governor. What was it Saint Matthew said? Ah, yes: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

Cost

Nailing down the current cost of managing federal lands in the West is a challenge. Budgets for the federal departments of Interior and Agriculture are broken out by activity, not management unit or state. Still, I think it’s fair to assume that the clear majority of the U.S. Forest Service’s activities are carried out west of the 100th meridian, and practically all of the Bureau of Land Management’s work is done in the West.

The Forest Service’s overall budget for fiscal year 2016 is $6.5 billion. Of course, the Forest Service collects money from many of the entities that use the nation’s forests — payments for mineral leases, timber leases, grazing allotments, camping permits, and the like defray some of the cost of operation. In fiscal year 2016, the Service estimates that its income will be about $493 million.

That leaves a Forest Service operating deficit for fiscal year 2016 of about $6,000,000,000 — that’s billion.

Federal mineral royalties from public lands is in the neighborhood of $7 billion, but that goes to the U.S. Treasury (and to states where minerals are extracted) while Congress is always in the mood to cut budgets in the Interior.

These numbers prompt a simple question: If the western states manage to convince the rest of America to give up national forests and rangelands, how could the states possibly afford to manage these lands?

The answer from the proponents of the scheme is twofold: first, eliminate all that federal bureaucracy and, second, charge more for activities on these lands.

The current condition of many of the West’s public lands clearly shows that federal agencies are underfunded — they’re strained to even inspect the properties they’re supposed to manage, and hard experience has shown that they struggle to enforce the land management plans already in place. The cost of federal land management can certainly be cut or entirely eliminated, but that will open the public domain to uncontrolled timbering, mining, mineral extraction, grazing, water diversion, and exploitation of archaeological and paleontological sites. A refined way of describing that situation would be “the tragedy of the commons.” Or you could simply call it what it would be — land rape.

Any effort by state officials to raise more money from leases on public lands would be doomed before it started. Political pressure from special interests has kept user fees and leases on federal lands at fire-sale prices for the last century. State or local authorities would face even more intense pressure to keep fees low. In the end, the asking price for leases and other fees would be a moot point, since there would be little, if any, surveillance or enforcement on the public domain because there would be little, if any, budget or manpower to support these activities.

Sell out

Of course, there’s a way states could avoid all the complications that would come with taking over federal land — once they gain title, they could just sell it. I doubt that they could find a buyer for it all; bear in mind that the federal government spent years trying to give some of this land away, without success. However, I’m sure there are lots of corporations who would be happy to negotiate rock-bottom prices for the rights to minerals, timber, or forage on some of the federal estate, and the CEOs of those firms certainly have the money to buy the best of what’s left, a few not-so-little corners of paradise for the super rich. Whoever might hold the title to those acres, you can be sure the first order of business would be to build fences and hang out “no trespassing” signs.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees the Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area south of Rawlins. The Wyoming Legislature recently joined several other western states in research to take over management of federal lands in the West. (BLM photo)

The Bureau of Land Management oversees the Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area southwest of Wamsutter. The Wyoming Legislature recently joined several other western states in research to take over management of federal lands in the West. (BLM photo)

Why federal lands matter

This all comes down to a matter of trust: Can state officials, legislators, and bureaucrats be trusted to withstand pressure from oil and gas conglomerates, mining companies, timber magnates, well-connected wind energy corporations, the manufacturers of off-road vehicles, and the livestock industry? Very little that I’ve seen in the last 30 years leads me to believe they can.

And that’s one of the very few convictions I share with the captains of industry. Like me, they’re certain that most of the politicians at the state level can be bought, bullied, or bamboozled into giving them an even freer hand in “developing” the resources of the West than they’ve had in the past. That’s why they continue lurk in the shadows of the debate, pouring untold millions into the effort to take federal lands away from the rest of us. They want to return to the good old days of the nineteenth-century robber barons when they could take what they wanted, when they wanted it, without any concern for the damage they did to the land and its people in the process. They measure their freedom now, as they did then, entirely by their bottom line.

I grew up in a place where I had to ask permission if I wanted to pull off on the shoulder of the road. Like so many others, I was drawn to the West by the mountains and sagebrush basins, the badlands and the big sky. I stayed, like so many others, because these places were open to common, everyday people like me. I can’t understand why anyone with a love of these wild places would ever willingly give them up.

More than government or business, more than constitutions or flags, the land held in common for us all is what keeps real freedom alive in the West. The nation’s forests and ranges are the foundation of a way of life. Without them, this part of the world would be like any other, a landscape whose only purpose is profit, subject to the will of a tiny minority, closed to the rest of us. I can’t even imagine it. I don’t want to try.

Columns and essays are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at [email protected]

Continental Divide Trail photo and Adobe Town photo by Bob Wick/BLM via Flickr Creative Commons.

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About the Author

Chris Madson served as editor of Wyoming Wildlife magazine with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 30 years before leaving to pursue freelance writing. He is a certified wildlife biologist with The Wildlife Society and holds a master's degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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32 Responses to Selling a Birthright: What would the West be like without its federal lands?

  1. Maggie Frazier January 26, 2017 at 6:34 pm #

    As a NY resident – I really dont have the experience everyone else here has. But having been caught up in the whole wild horse & burro brouhaha – the idea of our (all of us) public land being handed over to the state sort of turns my stomach. Its not only the horses & burros, but the idea that public land is already pretty much given to cattle & sheep at bargain prices. I wont go on about that but between the cattle degradation, the gas/oil/mining destruction, logging, etc etc., and then there is the “management” of predators – as in slaughter.
    I certainly agree with all the people who have commented. I sure would like to feel that these public lands will continue to be left alone just for people to know they are there even if they arent able to visit them.
    Incidentally this is a great article – really enjoyed it.

    Windsor, New York

  2. Barbara Parsons September 4, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    I so loved Wyoming Wildlife when you were editor Chris. Toward the end of your tenure you became more outspoken and told it how it is. Here you do so again.
    I’m afraid apathy on the part of many will be our undoing. Less than half of our population bothers to vote. Those who want to profit will prevail unless we become very vocal, have rallies, public meetings and so on. We must speak out and vote for what is right. We must engage in public service.
    This week we lost our premier conservationist, Tom Bell. He was so effective because he organized the Wyoming Outdoor (Coordinating) Council, rallied the electorate and started a newspaper, High Country News, to tell us the facts. He was a very gentle, caring man, but, he did not make nice when his beloved state was at risk from greedy corporate interests and the lacky politicians who promoted their agenda. He engage his whole life and even sold his ranch to fund what he believed.
    Most of our legislators regularly go to meetings of and promote the agenda of ALEC, Wyoming Liberty Group and other like groups promoted by “rich” folks with a for profit agenda. These groups are doing their best to inflict their agendas on our state. They have been successful often either due to corruption or ignorance of our legislators.
    We can’t depend on just to residents of western states to oppose them. We have to engage the rest of the citizens in this country to protect “their” public lands.

    Rawlins, Wyoming

  3. Mary Mangold May 23, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    Thank you for this excellent article. In Idaho, the people recently voted out, Idaho County Commissioner, Jim Chmelik, an apostle of Rep. Ken Ivory of Utah. Chmelik will no doubt, still travel the west, preaching his gospel of federal land disposal, but atleast this paraiah will not dwell in the halls of our county courthouse, voting to send precious taxpayer funds to the likes of American Lands Council and Coalition of Counties at $5000 a pop, 3 years in a row. Chmelik, who was campaigning for a third term, lost in a landslide Republican Primary election in Idaho County, on May 17, 2016. The people did speak.

    Grangeville, Idaho

  4. Duane Short May 13, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

    Thanks Chris for expertly detailing this issue.

    Even in Illinois, a state with only one national forest, the Shawnee and one national prairie, the Midewin, a movement erupted in the early 2000s to transfer management of federal lands to the state.

    The movement, led primarily by real estate developers and their political allies, fizzled rather quickly but it did not die.

    There, the premise remains that the more local control of the land becomes the more easily the decisionmakers can be influenced by local and not-so-local private interests.

    Distilled to its most basic elements, the movement to usurp federal control of federal lands with local control is an effort to divide and conquer.

    For example, it is a far earlier task to grease the palms of a few state and local politicians and decision-makers than to accomplish the same at the federal/congressional level. Legislators from all 50 states, to at least some degree, must answer to their constituents who are adamantly opposed to, for example, Wyoming selling off part or all of Yellowstone, the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, Grand Tetons NP and ecetera to private interests. To shut New Yorkers, for examples, out of Yellowstone would incite an uprising and it would cost Wyoming citizens billions in revenue.

    Your article is of utmost importance and should be widely distributed and read since the effort to take over federal land is not on most citizens’ radar, especially in states possessing little to no federal lands of great size and/or significance. But… citizens of these many states, likely value our national parks, forests, grasslands and monuments more than do citizens who have these treasures in their own states, or their proverbial backyards. But isn’t that how it goes?

    Pre-settlement Illinois was as wild as Wyoming or Alaska. Endless biologically diverse prairies were its hallmark. Today, Illinois’ tallgrass prairie is… get this… 0.047% of its original size. How could this happen? Divide and conquer. That’s how.

    Private interests simply could not restrain themselves.

    Only a fool would contend that such a thing could never happen in Wyoming. Only a fool would support a movement to divide and conquer our nation’s greatest public treasures while simultaneously betraying our national trust.

    Laramie, Wyoming

    • Stephen Bushi May 14, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      ALEC should have to register as a lobbyist, and all contributors to ALEC made public. Similarly, all State and Federal legislators should have to make all contacts with ALEC representatives be a matter of public record. And all donations and other contributions of value (travel expenses, cost of accommodations, meals, etc.) provided to legislators be made public. (Essentially any expense involving a legislator that ALEC or its contributors would try to use as a business expense). Any time a Legislator proposes a law that ALEC was involved in authoring, that fact should be made public. The American public has a right to know.

      Boise, Idaho

  5. Mark Heckert May 13, 2016 at 8:05 am #

    Great article. We, as owners and users of these lands, must stand and defend or they will be stolen away by people who’s highest interest is money. Public lands are part of the fabric of America and part of my identity as an American. I’m NOT letting go!

    Puyallup, Washington

  6. Brian Connely January 23, 2016 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks Chris for ditilling the issue and connecting it to our Lives. You do a better job at that than ANYBODY (living anyway, Aldo was pretty good :))
    The issue, nay the very Concept of Public Lands is integral to Who we are as a Country! America’s conservation ethic and practice are not only a model for the World but the envy of all peoples. This concept of the citizens’ Right to use Public Lands was unprecedented before this Nation was born. Before this model, land and its resources were owned/controlled by the elite(Monarchs, Fifedoms, Provencial gov’ts, etc.) and the “common man” was often hung by his own bowstring if he dared trespass on “the King’s Ground”.

    The specific issue at hand…whether Public Lands(owned by All Citizens) control be handed over to State Control would be a reversal of the very foundation of what our forefathers envisioned and the antithesis of “Who We Are”.

    We can look at the State of Texas as an example of what might lay in store for a State with virtually No Public Lands(because of an unique history of annexation by the Federal Government) (more here:http://www.wideopenspaces.com/….
    In Wyoming, our State Lands are in a much worse state than our Federal Lands. Their use by the Public (i.e. The Common Man) is restricted and is governed by State Commissions whose directions change with the political winds.
    And in closing, I believe that Local Control = the Wisest Control is a myth. If the formation of ANY of our National Parks/Wildlife Refuges/Wilderness Areas/Forests etc had been left up to “local control”…….None of them would have ever seen the light of day!
    This Land IS Your Land, This Land IS My Land, from California to the New York Islands (Thanks Woody….for the reminder!)

    Casper, Wyoming

  7. Jim Hagood September 25, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    Excellent piece.
    Exxon, BP, Encana, Chevron, Shell Oil are mere leasees of federal lands, and have obligations as a leasee to the U S A.( mineral extractions/ productions)
    Recall, the RIK matters. On that, WYOFILE did some of its best work.
    The University of Wyoming(via the Foundation, UWF) had a chance to manage lands, the Y Cross, and deemed it a sell decision. The USA is the owner of lands where much of the mineral production takes place in Wyoming–Federal lands. Off shore lands, are also, Federal lands. (submerged lands).
    I too thank, Mr Madison, for his thoughtful, and insightful piece. Also, thank you state and federal workers who care about public trust issues on Federal lands, in ever capacity in which such lands are in need of good stewardship.

    Lakewood, Colorado

  8. dale lockwood May 26, 2015 at 6:41 pm #

    I always think about the song America the beautiful and God Bless America. To me without our public lands this country loses much of what is important to us. A quality of life and a way of living most will not experience without land all can use and experience.

    Dale Lockwood

    brainerd, Minnesota

  9. Terry Potucek May 14, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

    This was a great article for any conservationist and especially those who wish to preserve our wild lands for future generations and save the few unspoiled areas for our dwindling wildlife. There is no doubt in my mind that the western United States public lands would become private playgrounds for the rich and those who would seek to only plunder its natural resources or for those who wish to enrich themselves further. We don’t want to have public lands become private European style hunting preserves and there is no doubt in my mind that state governments will be able to better protect/manage these lands than the federal government, which is far better able to funnel more funds and assistance to wilderness areas than financially-strapped state governments. Please feel free to email me and keep me in the loop on these issues.

    Terry Potucek

    La Mirada, California

  10. Mark O'Brien May 13, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

    This is an issue at state also in the Great lakes region. On one hand, the GOP-dominated state governments condemn those of us opposed to state giveaways of land to business interests and call us liberals, tree-huggers, etc. and proclaim it is all about jobs- short term, benefiting only a few people. Imagine the number of jobs we would have if these lands and facilities were maintained properly. This is all about conservation — and anyone that enjoys the outdoors, clean water, hunting, fishing, camping, etc. should realize that had these lands not been set aside by the federal government 100+ years ago, we would not be enjoying them now. It’s unfortunate that so many politicians see $$ from the lobbyists and do not really care about America. This really has to change.

    Mark O’Brien

    Ann Arbor, Michigan

  11. brett bittenbender May 13, 2015 at 8:28 am #

    Thanks for the great article Chris!!!! I will surely share it. We all have to stay diligent now, more than ever regarding our public lands. The powers pushing this whole movement won’t be happy until they’ve transformed the west into another Appalachia….!!!!

    Brett Bittenbender

    mccall, Idaho

  12. Earl DeGroot May 13, 2015 at 6:31 am #

    I have been watching this issue for months…years actually. I am excited to see so many people jumping on the band wagon. Our elected officials are soon going to realize they have awaken a sleeping giant. I encourage everyone to contact them. I have written until my fingers are sore, and I am going to keep writing!!

    Earl DeGroot

    Cheyenne, Wyoming

  13. Mike Hunzie May 12, 2015 at 9:58 pm #

    Glad to be able again to read another great work by Chris Madson.

    I remember seeing Cliven Bundy riding around on a horse displaying the American Flag, presumably because he thought he was some kind of patriot, while spewing his hate of the U. S. Government. Our state legislature’s “Darby Mountain Sheep Bill” was their way of doing the same thing. It makes for a great show, but in the end, accomplishes nothing except hurting the honest hard working public.

    Writing your elected representatives may help (I have; it did not); but the most effective way to keep our public lands public is going to require the people to get their heads out of the sand and work hard to elect those who will not be bought by Corporate America.

    Mike Hunzie

    Diamondville, Wyoming

  14. sarah krall May 12, 2015 at 8:33 pm #

    Thank you, Chris. I so miss reading your essays every month. I hope I continue to find your work as guest writer; I’ll certainly keep searching for it.

    Sarah Krall

    Lander, Wyoming

  15. Fred Maguire May 12, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

    Mr. Madsen did a great job communicating the reasons not to transfer every American’s land to the states. As we enter this fight, and it will be a fight, I think we need to include all those users of public land including the folks that come west to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks. Many stop in their national forests on their way. Also include the out-of-state hunters that use their federal lands in the west. Many are of substantial means and know how to get things done. We need to get all 300 million people to cry foul on the taking of their lands. We can’t allow the Bighorn National Forest become Anadarko Acres.

    By the way, Cliven Bundy owes me and a whole bunch of other people a lot of money. I want my money and I want it now.

    Fred Maguire

    Casper, Wyoming

  16. Bob May 12, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    Unfortunately, this is a west-wide problem, not just Wyoming’s. I don’t live in Wyoming anymore, but I still love it as much as I did for the 30 years I was a biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish. The issues are much the same in my adopted state, Arizona, and for the same reasons expressed by several commenters. I admire the optimism expressed by Kim Wilbert of the Sierra Club, but I have followed the actions of Wyoming political representatives Lummis, Enzi and Barraso over the years, and, of course it being Wyoming, have met all of them personally. For the most part, their priority has not been sustainable management of Wyoming’s wildlife and natural resources. I often send comments on land management issues to Arizona representatives McCain, Flake, and McSally. From the canned replies I usually, receive from them I have no faith that they will do the right thing either.

    Obviously, the underdogs in this dogfight need a champion or two willing to take off the gloves and fight bareknuckle. Eloquent writers like Dan Neal and Chirs Madson have helped spread the good word over the years, and possibly Wyoming could not have accomplished the reintroduction of state’s iconic wildlife species, the black-footed ferret, without a helping hand from Senator Charles Scott and many, many ranchers in southeastern Wyoming. I worked with a lot of ranchers over the years and found most of them to be people who cared about the land and wildlife. I would hope that most of them do not support this attempted land grab by extractive industries.

    So band together my friends, lovers of wild places and wild animals of the open range. You are on the same side. Find me some champions, and If you want to start a revolution count me in.

    R.J. Luce

    Sierra Vista, Arizona

  17. Larry O Copenhaver May 12, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    Mr. Madsen’s heart is in the right place but his handle on details is lacking, especially concerning MT. I live here and have been deeply involved in conservation issues for 30 years and the devil is in the details… For one thing you included MT in the states that have passed a law demanding study of Fedral statutes in order to transfer Fed lands to the State. Do realize that Yes, such a statute passed the Legislature here in 2015, but the Governor vetoed it, so no such statute/Resolution exists – please remove MT from your examples. Secondly, Bighorn sheep are an important, almost an APEX species for those enthusiasts who love them… you quote “Hunting licenses for bighorns are prized and, at auction, have brought more than $100,000 each.” Sir, understating things doesn’t help your main point. In 2014, the MT Bighorn Tag brought $474,000 at the Wild Sheep Convention, almost 5 times the figure you quoted… and very close to a Half Million dollars… I still salute your efforts but I hope you’ll forgive my cringing at the details… Respectfully!

    Larry O Copenhaver

    Helena, MT, Montana

  18. Karen Hartman May 12, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    Utah has already said that it would sell off some of the Federal lands if they get control to help fund their schools, and to pay to manage the lands. If people think access is difficult now on Forest Service and BLM land, just imagine what it will be like once the state sells off the ‘crucial elk and deer winter ranges’ to private parties. They will block access to the high country, as well as destroying wildlife habitat in the name of subdivisions and large energy developers. I for one don’t want to see uncontrolled oil and gas development, grazing and wind farms on Federal lands. You are so right when you call it land rape.

    Karen Hartman

    Spanish Fork, Utah

  19. Dan Smitherman May 12, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    I have read Chris for years when he worked for Wyoming Wildlife. His essays were always thoughtful, well researched and relevant. This one is no different. i have followed this issue for some time and for once an author has captured not only the essence of this issue but all the ramifications and risks in a single essay. Well done Chris. It is way past the time the public spoke its mind and reminded the politicians who votes and whose land this is.

    Dan Smitherman

    Bondurant, Wyoming

  20. Dewey Vanderhoff May 12, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

    Madson hits a triple here with this essay , but didn’t score at the plate because of an omission. The reala ctivist organization behind the ” Take back our federal lands” by the states and counties is actually the American Lands Council. The ALC is headed by a snarky Utah legislator named Ken Ivory, HQ’d in a very upscale office park south of Slat Lake City. It is also parallel to and possibly ( probably ) partly funded by the Koch Brothers via ALEC. But American lands Council has covertly been co-opting county governments across the West to buy in. ALC has gotten dozens of countie governments to pony up. The list f those counties that donated used to be visible on ALC’s website, but thatw ebside is —conveniently —-down. They say due to overwhelming response., to which I call B.S. because the FAQ pages, propaganda and rhetoric messages, and most convenient of all the fundraising and donations pages are still nicely active. http://www.americanlandcouncil.org/

    They succeeded in Wyoming in getting a couple counties to pledge public funds for their private efforts. Lincoln and or Sublette counties if I recall . Ken ivory and his ALC almost succeeded in getting my own Park County Commission to pledge $ 5000 in public funds to ALC last spring, until I called them out on it and had a few other folks raise the issue. Park County then deferred to the state County Commissioner’s organization for guidnace…a thin veiled attempt to get a bloc of Wyoming counties to buy in simulataneously . Oh by the way , 38 of Wyoming’s 90 state legislators belong to the Koch Bros’ ALEC , whose efforts to force relinquishment of federal lands to state governments is ongoing. Our governor Matt Mead gave one of three keynote addresses at last year’s national convention of ALEC in Washington D.C.

    ALC is a 501(c)(4) exempt organization and contributions are not tax deductible for federal income tax purposes.American Lands Council 10808 S River Front Pkwy Ste 3029 South Jordan UT 84095 Office: (801) 252-6622

    The bottom line is there is a broad, well funded, politically aggressive movement to get vast amounts of federal lands into state hands. Maybe only for “co-management” at first , but eventually full control, then state ownership, and finally privatization —so the billionaires can buy land at bargain prices and lock the rest of us out. It has already happened in Ivory’s Utah , where fully a third of repatriated federal lands have found their way into private ownership.

    Make no mistake. The threat is real. Your public lands are on a path to being sold to Oligarchs, and the hunting fishing recreation and natural resources along with them.

    Why would we want to go down that path ? We do not. So please keep an eye on your county commission and state representatives about this, and do not hesitate to call ’em out.

    Dewey Vanderhoff

    Cody, Wyoming

  21. Dan Stroud May 12, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    Chris; thanks once again for going to the max in your essays. I believe that we in Wyoming have taken for granted what we have for too long; whether it’s the sage-grouse or bighorn sheep! We need to better consider a future that “plans” for these and all wildlife in all of our efforts. Selling our lands is not in our best interest, nor the best interest for anyone other than the rich. Freedom remains as long as we have places to go hunt, fish or just think. Once these lands are gone, heaven help us, our children and their children.

    Thanks again for the great article!!

    Dan Stroud

    Pinedale, Wyoming

  22. Joan Timchak May 12, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    Great article and I agree with all that has been said

    One way to possibly curtail efforts is to find primary election challengers that support public lands to run against Lummis, Enzi, Barasso and state representatives. With such a high percentange against a land transfer a challenger may have a chance of ousting those so willing to sell our heritage to special interests.

    Joan Timchak

    Dubois , Wyoming

  23. Rob Davidson May 12, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    The lands managed by the State of Wyoming biggest attraction to the folks backing the transfer of our public lands is no public. The citizen or group that wants to participate on how our state trust lands are managed has no where to go as long as the leaser is meeting their payments. There is no planning process, little notification of pre-determined outcomes, and a body of law within the state that bars any consideration outside revenue.

    Rob Davidson

    Sheridan, Wyoming

  24. Kathy Baker May 12, 2015 at 9:23 am #

    Look to Elk Mountain in southern Wyoming if you want to see one potential downfall. Back in the 1980s I reported on the problem hunters had trying to access the federal lands in that area. There was essentially one public road in, and due to its layout, most hunters could not gain legal access to public lands on the mountain. The mountain had essentially become a private hunting reserve. I moved away from the area in the late 80s so have no idea of this is still the case. I do know that reporting on the access issue caused a local brouhaha, including at least one business (with ties to the landowner) threatening to pull their business from the small newspaper that I reported for. That never happened, and to the publicher’s credit, he never told me to stop reporting on this issue–just to be sure that I was accurate and gave the landowner a chance to respond. The federal government, which has infinitely more resources than the state, has challenges managing public lands and providing access. If the state takes over management of more public lands, access issues like this would likely become much more prevalent–both due to lack of resources and also because our state is still run, by and large, by a good old boys’ network. And that network does not often protect or seem to care for the rights of those who are without connections or power.

    Kathy Baker

    Cheyenne, Wyoming

    • ken casner September 5, 2016 at 9:30 am #

      Mrs. Baker, you should come and look now at Elk Mountain. Since you left the stages of public access have been fought at a higher level several of the ranches you knew have been sold the Basin, Mckee, UL, Elk Mountain Home Ranch, Rattlesnake Ranch, Vicker’s, and the OH or Ozzburges.
      A rich billionaire bought the land,which is his rights. However he enclosed even more public land,and has purchased some more, and for what to raise cattle. We all know it is to protect his holdings along with his private forest and hunting.
      I came to Elk Mountain in 1969, with what was to be my best Friend Bill(Boog) Kennedy. Since that time I have truly never left and in 1998, I bought the Elk Mountain Trading Co and for the last 17 yrs have watched this very movement, around the whole area.
      Currently this mountain is overgrazed especially when you run 14,000 head of steers on all these Ranch for two years running. First to be grazed off is BLM and State Ground and then private sections are last, for the State and BLM have no real control. Most of these private ranches are within sight, look good at the glance, go up to Quarter section on County Rd. 404 and look beyond the second gate which is private holdings, along with four sections of State and BLM.
      Granted, no rain and add all those Wyoming Cattle Association Excuses,even the true stewards of privately owned ranchers give an eye of disgust and know the answers.
      What really gets my heart is the Wyoming Game and Fish keeps increasing the licenses and extending the season to curb the Elk Populations, due to these elk coming down to access feed. When that feed is grazed off by 14,000 steers compared to 10,000 Elk, in the prime time of Grass for these animals. Where do these animals go when the first shot is fired on the mountain.
      We have a problem brewing and it will reach over all Wyoming people, just not Elk Mountain. I suggest as Mrs. Parson’s said, you better vote… The final report to this legislator by the Office of Land investments is due on 30 November after the elections, this study was funded in 2015 to the tune of $100,000 to turn over Federal Lands to the State. Our representatives voted this year for such an exchange in 2016 just look at the voting records.

      Town of Elk Mountain, Wyoming

  25. R.W. "Doc" Boyle May 12, 2015 at 9:23 am #

    Alec is simply a criminal, traitorous organization bent upon a fascist/republican takeover of our country. Every legislator/congressman or senator associated with it should be impeached.

    R.W. “Doc” Boyle

    New Castle, Colorado

  26. Betsy Marston May 12, 2015 at 9:17 am #

    I couldn’t agree with you more, thanks.

    Betsy Marston
    Paonia, CO

    Paonia, Colorado

  27. Bill Voigt May 12, 2015 at 9:02 am #

    This is a great idea if you like pump jacks and private land. Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi do not represent the sportsmen and sportswomen of Wyoming. They represent the interests who have contributed to their campaigns. The Koch Bros, proponents of privatization of public lands, have been major contributors to both our Wyoming Senators. When you write your Senators to express your displeasure to their vote on the Murkowski Amendment make sure you enclose a large check or your voice will not be heard.

    Bill Voigt

    Laramie, Wyoming

  28. Dan Neal May 12, 2015 at 8:27 am #

    Chris Madson hits the nail on the head. State decision-makers will not stand up to pressure from the big interests in coal, oil & gas, and wind power. They can’t afford to manage these lands and will simply sell them off.

    Hunters and anglers did take to the streets in Boise last winter to tell the Idaho legislature to back off. We may need to do that in Wyoming this winter, but in the meantime, we all should be writing our legislators.

    I suggest that people send their state representative and their state senator an email message expressing opposition to the land grab and including a link to Madson’s analysis. (Here it is: http://www.wyofile.com/column/selling-a-birthright-what-would-the-west-be-like-without-its-federal-lands/)

    You can find your legislator’s email address here: http://legisweb.state.wy.us/LSOWEB/LegInfo.aspx

    Those of you who are represented by Sen. Charles Scott should know that he rarely reads email. Please send a letter to him via the U.S. Postal Service:

    Sen. Charles Scott
    13900 State Highway 487
    Casper WY 82604

    Or simply call the good senator at home. I know he likes to talk with his constituents. (307) 473-2512

    Two other things: Post a link to this WyoFile essay on your Facebook page and email links to all your friends who love Wyoming’s accessible public lands and want to see them remain under federal control where the public has a chance to stand up for good management.

    Let’s oppose the Great Land Grab.

    Dan Neal

    Casper, Wyoming

  29. Kim Wilbert May 12, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    Absolutely, this is an excellent article. Transfer of publicly owned federal lands to states will benefit only huge corporations and billionaires. Jerry Egge is correct – everybody who lives in and loves Wyoming or the West must make sure our cherished public lands birthright is not squandered. Please contact your representatives in D.C. (Rep. Lummis, and Senators Enzi and Barraso) and ask them to stop this nonsense now!!

    Kim Wilbert, Chair
    Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club

    Riverton, Wyoming

  30. Jerry Egge May 12, 2015 at 7:13 am #

    Great article! Without a doubt, we need to stop the federal land-grab movement. Wyoming is under attack. Our congressional delegates have declared their support for transferring our federal lands. I encourage everyone to contact them and put this transfer idea to bed.

    Jerry Egge, Co-chair
    WY Backcountry Hunter and Angler

    Cheyenne, Wyoming

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