New Analysis: Outside of Utah, Efforts to Seize American Public Lands Stall as Politicians Pay a Price

Jun 1, 2016

By Center for Western Priorities

It has been another difficult year for politicians and interest groups fighting to seize control of America’s public lands. Legislators in state capitols across the West are rebuffing bills to force the United States to dispose of American public lands into state and private hands. At the same time, elected officials backing public land seizure efforts are now paying a political price for their actions.

According to a new analysis by the Center for Western Priorities, legislative attempts to seize public lands have failed to gain traction. In fact, only one out of 16 public land seizure bills passed in Western legislatures outside Utah during 2016. These were bills that either called for a “transfer” of American public lands or would have laid the groundwork for the policy. (The raw data for the analysis is available here).

PLS Bills 15-16_pie charts

Only in Utah do state lawmakers continue to aggressively pursue a public lands seizure agenda. In 2016, Utah lawmakers passed 5 out of 6 public land seizure bills, including a bill to establish a dedicated funding stream to sue the U.S. government for control of national public lands within Utah—a futile lawsuit which is expected to cost Utah taxpayers upwards of $14 million.

Ever since passing the “Transfer of Public Lands Act” in 2012, Utah and its leaders, led by State Representative Ken Ivory, have worked unsuccessfully to convince other Western states to join Utah’s fight. Rep. Ivory—who also founded the American Lands Council, an advocacy group dedicated to the issue—and his fellow land seizure advocates have failed to answer even the most basic questions about states taking control of national public lands: How can states afford to manage public lands? Will recreation access be compromised in favor of development interests? And are these efforts constitutional?

The Center for Western Priorities recently launched a new campaign—U-Turn Utah—calling on Utah’s leaders to make a U-turn in their irresponsible and potentially damaging attempt to control American public lands.

Even as Utah continues throwing taxpayer dollars at its misguided efforts to take control of national forests, monuments, wildlife refuges, and other public lands, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other Western states aren’t committed to the effort. In Arizona, all four public land seizure bills failed in 2016, while all three such bills were killed in Wyoming.

PLS Bills 15-16_bar graph

Besides Utah, the only Western state to approve public land seizure legislation in 2016 was Idaho, which passed an “Abatement of Catastrophic Public Nuisance” bill. The legislation purports to provide local governments and sheriffs with special authority over national public lands.

Although the bill became law, the process leading to its passage was an embarrassment for the Idaho legislature. The bill’s sponsor, Idaho state Senator Sheryl Nuxoll, was unable to explain the purpose of the bill, she had to retract the original legislation because of inconsistencies, and it was widely reported that the bill was drafted by the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council.

Sen. Nuxoll ended up paying the ultimate political price when she lost her seat this May in the Republican primary. Another major “land-transfer agitator,” Idaho County Commission Chairman Jim Chmelik, also lost his primary challenge, in part for his unyielding support for the public land seizure agenda.

While efforts to seize public lands fail, some Western states are taking the opportunity to express their support for the critical importance of national parks, forests, and other public lands to the region’s economy. During the 2016 legislative session, Colorado passed a first-in-the-nation Public Lands Day bill setting aside the third Saturday in May as a day to celebrate the outdoors. Similarly, New Mexico passed a resolution recognizing and honoring the public land legacy in New Mexico.

As Utah continues to push forward with their attempts to seize public lands, it is clear there isn’t interest or momentum for these reckless efforts throughout the West.

Photo Credit: NPS/Patrick Myers