Efforts to wrest federal lands from public ownership are an orchestrated, multi-layered strategy that can’t be brushed off as a fringe idea, a leading conservationist warns.
The federal-lands transfer movement has built momentum to the point it can’t be ignored, said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. A revived Sagebrush Rebellion has seen legislators in 11 Western states introduce 37 land transfer bills with six of them passing and another four finalized as “study” legislation.
The effort has reached inside the Beltway where the U.S. Senate in March voted 51-49 to fund initiatives to sell or transfer federal land to states or local governments. Wyoming’s Republican senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi backed the measure.
Meantime, Wyoming’s lone Representative Cynthia Lummis, also a Republican, on Monday was scheduled to participate in a forum focusing on grassroots efforts toward more local control. Wyoming County Commissioners Association director Pete Obermueller traveled to Washington D.C. to testify. (Read more about the Federal Land Action Group of which Lummis is a member.)
Public-land users may have been lulled into complacency by seemingly iron-clad clauses in the constitutions of Western states and related federal statehood legislation. Plus, states can pass all the land-transfer legislation they want and that wouldn’t change ownership, which would have to be transferred by Congress. Land-transfer backers blunt criticism of their quest, saying public lands would remain public. But the Senate vote this spring and other activity in Washington and around the country should sound alarms, Fosburgh said.
Far from being a fringe movement, the federal land transfer movement is well-funded, includes K-Street lobbyists and is becoming an accepted political plank, Fosburgh said. “The whole goal is to make this mainstream,” he said.
“If anybody thinks this is going to go away with a single vote, it’s not going to happen,” Fosburgh said at a panel discussion two weeks ago at the SHIFT festival in Jackson. There conservation, adventure and public lands were on the agenda for a recreation-oriented crowd. “Folks who have been sitting back … it’s a different day,” he told a receptive audience. “At some point you’ve got to make a stand.”
Fosburgh’s TRCP supports sustainable hunting and public access to federal lands, and he’s convinced that the transfer of federal lands to states would be the first step of privatization. “This is the No. 1 threat to hunting and fishing,” he told the SHIFT audience. “If you take away public lands, you take away hunting and fishing.”
A long-term strategy to sow dissatisfaction?
Fosburgh’s views illuminate the seriousness with which some in the conservation community are now viewing the renewed Sagebrush Rebellion. The movement is supported by a strategy that’s decades old — starving land management agencies — transfer critics say. Launched under the guise of deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility, budget cutting is also a cynical ploy to sow dissatisfaction of federal western land management at the grassroots level, Fosburgh contends.
While transfer supporters might dismiss this theme as political babble, it is being adopted in Western recreation enclaves like Jackson Hole. From this perspective, the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s never ended. A reaction against increasing federal regulation, the simmering resentment of federal landlords had its origins during the Reagan presidency under budget director David Stockman, Fosburgh argues.
While Stockman may not have had designs on federal holdings, he launched an era of budget conservatism that’s hamstrung land-management agencies. Today many see federal field workers as incapable of doing their jobs. In that atmosphere, land-transfer advocates have proposed a solution — state ownership or management of the very lands that have been starved of stewardship.
“You can go all the way back to the 1970s,” Fosburgh, said. Since 1977, the percentage of the federal budget spent on conservation has been cut in half, from 2.2 percent to 1.1 percent, TRCP says, citing government figures.
The figures cover “everything in the natural resources arena,” said Paul Wilkins, chief conservation officer with the TRCP. That conservation category includes the majority of Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service and EPA budgets.
TRCP worries discontent will earn more supporters for the land-transfer movement. “Congress has fostered this frustration that is real on the ground,” Wilkins said. “A lot of people complain about our land-management agencies. They’ve been given very complex rules and less funding and are expected to do more. In reality, Congress both sets the budget and writes the rules.”
Legislators’ effort have been “a calculated policy,” Fosburgh said. “You have this sort of strangling of the agencies.” The result is illustrated in an email Wyoming Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) sent to constituents explaining why she introduced transfer legislation in Cheyenne earlier this year. (It died, but a $75,000 study bill did pass.)
“U.S. management of forests is poor, you must admit,” she wrote. “The Bridger-Teton, Medicine Bow and Shoshone forests are unhealthy. We are in an era of catastrophic forest fires due to mismanaged, dangerously high fuel loads. A healthy forest will have 80 trees per acre. There are forests in the West that have a very unhealthy 400 trees per acre. Wildlife, much less trees, cannot thrive in those forests.”
Halverson will go along with half of Fosburgh’s argument. “I happen to know that the Forest Service budget has been getting cut forever,” she said. “It seems reasonable to me that by starving these land managers they are, in effect, failing the public, and are not able to support multiple use.
“I think that’s a perfectly logical analysis of what’s going on,” Halverson said. “Close a few campgrounds … the Forest Service pleads poverty, which I happen to believe, then the people start getting upset and they want to manage the land.”
But is it a grand conspiracy? “In order to agree with that I’d have to be inside someone’s head,” Halverson said.
Slurry of reports underscores funding woes
A slurry of recent reports and opinions from both conservation groups and the government itself highlight federal land agencies’ funding woes. Earlier this year Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack swung through Jackson Hole campaigning for more money for the U.S. Forest Service as increasing firefighting costs hobble the agency’s day-to-day operations. For the first time, the Forest Service will spend more than half its annual budget fighting fires, up from 16 percent 20 years ago.
The agency’s re-balanced — or unbalanced — workforce illustrates the consequences. In 1998 there were 18,000 employees managing Forest Service lands. Today there are fewer than 11,000, while the rest fight blazes. That means non-fire personnel ranks have shrunk by 39 percent, as documented in the report “The rising cost of wildfire operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work.”
The agency is forced to borrow from elsewhere in its budget. That practice, also called fire transfers, “has steadily consumed an ever increasing portion of the agency’s appropriated budget,” the report says. Fall projects are cancelled, whether they be partnership programs with trail crews, prescribed burns, or other projects.
Dissatisfaction in local communities can result. “While Congress typically provides supplemental resources to replenish the Forest Service budget after fire transfers, transfers remain extremely problematic as they disrupt seasonal work, frustrate partners, and delay vital work,” the report says.
Campgrounds and other recreation sites also suffer. “The overall effect is an increase in public health and safety concerns, and liability for the federal government,” the report says. “The only action national forests can take to reduce the government liability is to close recreation facilities, thereby impacting the outdoor recreation opportunities that drive many rural tourism economies.”
Outdoor recreation is a $646 billion annual industry, supporters say, and a growing portion of it takes place on special Bureau of Land Management property. Another paper, this one by The Wilderness Society, outlines deficiencies in funding that agency’s 30-million acre National Landscape Conservation System.
In Wyoming, where the federal government owns 48 percent of the state, the BLM system includes national scenic and historic trails and wilderness study areas. “The National Conservation Lands now account for over 12 percent of the land the BLM manages,” The Wilderness Society said. “Unfortunately, in 2015 they received less than 6 percent of total BLM funding.”
In FY 2015, the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System received $64 million when it needed $70 million to keep pace, the group’s 32 page report “2015 State of the National Conservation Lands: A third assessment” states.
“Instead, continual budget cuts undermine the BLM’s ability to hire sufficient rangers, archaeologists, historians, and coordinators for volunteer and partnership programs,” the report says. “In turn, lack of staff makes it difficult to identify and maintain trails, close roads and enforce travel restrictions, restore habitat, apprehend vandals, interpret resources, and stabilize fragile cultural sites….”
Even the National Park Service is not immune to the constrained conservation budget. It faces deferred maintenance that amounts to $11.5 billion. Threats of development inside park borders became more real as Congress recently let authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund expire.
In the second sentence of his radio address Saturday, President Obama referred to a Wyoming landmark as he urged reinstatement of the fund. “We’re blessed with natural treasures – from the Grand Tetons to the Grand Canyon,” he said. Yet the view of the Teton Mountains could be marred if Wyoming sells two 640-acre school trust sections in the heart of the park. The LWCF could be used to buy that land for preservation if the account was reauthorized and funded.
Democrats say the erosion reaches into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well. Last week U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz), the top Democratic member of the House Natural Resources Committee, published an op-ed piece in The Hill, Only Congress can prevent National Wildlife Refuges’ financial death spiral.
“Over the past several years, our national wildlife refuges – homes to bald eagles, American alligators, grey wolves and too many other iconic species to name – have been systematically starved of money and staff,” he wrote. “House Republicans have insisted on budget cuts that are crippling the Refuge system. Since 2011, the Refuge system has lost 430 employees – more than 12 percent of its workforce.”
Halverson still on course
Regardless of the reason federal agencies are in their current position, Halverson’s still on the side of state ownership or management of federal lands.
“We [feds] don’t have the money and it doesn’t seem to be Washington’s priority,” Halverson said. As far as shifting those priorities, “I don’t know if anyone in Washington has the spine to do that. I think land managers are way low on the list.”
Which brings her to state ownership and/or control.
“States will put multiple use as a higher priority, healthy forests as a higher priority,” she said. “I think Wyoming would move land management way up on its list of priorities.”
This week’s Wyoming revenue estimates — through a lens of dismal energy prices and production — gave Halverson pause. It’s not as if Wyoming can waltz in with a pot of funds and rescue campgrounds. One solution would be selling federal resources, she said.
“We have some terribly unhealthy forests,” she said, pointing to some places she says trees are 10 times thicker than they should be. “On the Shoshone National Forest we’ve got up to 400 trees per acre and it’s just not healthy. We could get these forests cleaned up [with timber sales] and make some money in a very short time.”
This article was corrected to reflect the proper name of Pete Obermueller’s association. It is the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, not the Wyoming State Commissioners Association — Ed.