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April 29, 2014 - Jessica Goad

Yes, It’s #BiggerThanBundy—Efforts to Seize Your Public Lands Have Only Just Begun

The star of Cliven Bundy—the Nevada rancher who refused to pay $1.1 million in grazing fees and very nearly incited an armed standoff with the federal government—quickly rose and quickly fell.  But, as the media and general public turn their attention to other issues, it’s worth remembering that Bundy’s fringe ideas are mirrored by current efforts in many Western states to seize federal lands.

Despite benefitting from federal public lands where he grazed his cattle (a benefit he failed to pay for), Bundy was fundamentally opposed to the idea of the federal government managing places for the benefit of all Americans.  As he put it:

Yeah, it gets back to the ownership of this. Who owns this land? Does the sovereign State of Nevada own this land within their borders? Or does the United States own this land with their borders? If United States owns this land then I guess I’m wrong. But what if this is a sovereign State of Nevada and Clark County, Nevada owns this land?

Some state legislators and their allies in the American West hold similar views, and continue to endorse Bundy’s state-centric philosophy with hashtags like “#biggerthanbundy” on social media.

Already, a handful of states have passed bills demanding that the federal government turn federal lands over to the states, while others have created “study committees” funded by taxpayers to take a more thorough look at the idea.   For example:

-  Idaho created a “Federal Lands Interim Committee” in 2013 to study the potential benefits if the federal government were to turn Idaho’s public lands over to the state. The committee will be meeting throughout the summer of 2014.

-  Montana passed a joint resolution in 2013 calling for an “Interim study on public land management” to be undertaken by a legislative committee.  This study is currently underway.

-  Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (R) signed a bill in 2013 creating the “Nevada Land Management Implementation Committee” and the “Nevada Land Management Task Force.”  Interestingly, the costs of this committee are paid for by the counties from which members are appointed.

-  Earlier this spring, Utah passed HB 164, which authorized the “Interstate Compact on State Transfer of Public Lands” to coordinated political and legal challenges across states.  It remains to be seen which (if any) states decide to join.  The state has already authorized $3 million in legal fees to fight the federal government in the courts.

-  Wyoming passed HB 228 in 2013, “Creating a task force to investigate possible legal recourses to compel the federal government to relinquish ownership and management of federal lands.”

Similar efforts in Colorado and New Mexico have so far been stymied.

Of course, while states seizing federal public lands might be “Bigger than Bundy,” they are also unconstitutional, would be extremely expensive, and are not supported by the public.

Or, as the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “There might be a legitimate political question as to whether the federal government has done a good job of owning and managing so much land. But these reborn Sagebrush Rebellion efforts are a waste of time and taxpayer money and are steeped more in a reactionary embrace of states’ rights than civic leadership. The courts, and the voters, should stand firmly against these expensive distractions.”

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