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What Happens When States Take Over Federal Lands? This Mess.

Across the West, politicians led by Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory keep trying (and failing) to force the federal government to hand public land over to state and local governments. But what happens after that?

Ivory and company need to brush up on their history.

In yesterday’s Casper Star-Tribune, University of Wyoming professor Phil Roberts shares the tragic story of the Shoshone Cavern National Monument. Created as a national monument in 1909, Congress transferred the cavern to the city of Cody in 1954.

Shoshone Cavern boundary map. Department of the Interior

The city let a local businessman develop the cavern as a tourist attraction, but the site was a complete failure. After 24 years of neglect, Cody handed the caverns back to the federal government, its natural features ruined. According to the Star-Tribune, people who have seen inside the caves report extensive damage and missing stalactites.

A gate now bars the entrance to the cavern. It draws just a few hundred spelunkers a year, with entrance by permit only.

So what went wrong? According to Roberts,

…of course, “success” came in the form of locals saying, “Now, we’ll show the federal government how to operate the caverns as a great tourist site!” But in my definition, the “success” was in getting Congress to put the site out of the hands of the federal government and into local control. Obviously, that was the limit of “success” because as operations continued, it became apparent that the project was far too expensive for non-federal entities to develop.

From his years of research into the Shoshone Cavern, Roberts sees a lesson for those who advocate transferring public land to state or local governments today:

Should Congress somehow turn over such lands now, I am convinced that the former public lands would be sold off — and not necessarily to the highest bidder, nor to Wyomingites. I’d expect huge tracts being bought by Chinese billionaires, Russian oligarchs or Arab shaikhs…. The land would be used to enrich certain people and what now is our greatest legacy, the once-public lands, would be closed off to us. Bad deal for Wyoming, and legislators who propose such clap-trap ought to be ashamed of themselves for representing all of those non-Wyoming greedy land-grabbers.

Shoshone Cavern is, sadly, not a unique example. More recently, the National Park Service took over management of New Mexico’s Valles Caldera Preserve after 15 years of management by a public trust that was unable to find a sustainable financial model. Unlike Shoshone Cavern, though, the preserve was transferred to the park service before it could fall into disrepair and neglect. By being managed as a unit of the National Park Service, access for hiking, hunting, and fishing in the preserve will be ensured, allowing all Americans to enjoy one of the West’s natural treasures.

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