Where he hunts depends on a number of factors, but one thing Land Tawney doesn’t have to worry about is permission. The Missoula, Montana, resident chases ducks and geese on a local national wildlife refuge and on Bureau of Land Management lakes near his home.
“I can come and go as I please. Anyone can. It’s public land,” says Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It’s pretty awesome that anyone can hunt these places without getting permission because we all own it.”
If a growing number of state and federal lawmakers get their way, his—and your—public duck hunting days may be numbered. Efforts to wrest control of federal land, including NWRs, BLMs and national forests, are underway. And they are gaining traction among a growing constituency of anti-government groups as well as many state and federal legislators.
“Giving federal land back to the states or to private interests was one of the demands of the group that took over the Malheur NWR in Oregon. They wanted the refuge handed over to the local government,” says Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Center for Western Lands director Joel Webster.
That occupation didn’t end well for Ammon Bundy and those who stood with him. Their demands were never met and one member was killed by federal agents. However, the federal land transfer movement isn’t relegated to a few fringe groups with a disdain for the government.
Republican Ted Cruz has jumped on the anti-public lands bandwagon during his presidential campaign.
“It’s not right, it doesn’t make sense,” Cruz said during a speech at Boise State University in Idaho regarding federal land ownership. “We need to transfer that land back to the states or even better, back to the people.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) also floated the idea of selling “surplus federal property” in 2012. A year earlier, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) sponsored The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, which would have forced the sale of more than 3 million acres of public land. It did not gain any traction.
“These lawmakers seem to forget that we already own this land, so there’s no need to give it back to the people, unless they’re talking about putting it back in private ownership,” says Tawney. “I believe that some of them actually want that.”
Utah governor Gary Herbert (R) hasn’t said that specifically, but he signed HB148, the Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study, into law in 2012. It “requires the U.S. to extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those public lands to the state.”
That amounts to millions of acres of public land, including a number of national wildlife refuges open to waterfowl hunting. Four other western states have passed bills mandating a study of federal land transfers.
“We need to hammer legislators on this because once it’s gone, public land is never coming back.”
The idea makes sense at first glance. The land falls within state boundaries, so why not get the federal government out of public lands management and let the states take over?
Tawney admits the federal government doesn’t always do a good job of managing public property.
What’s more, turning that land over to states doesn’t necessarily mean it will be sold. However, the bill signed by Herbert says “5 percent of the net proceeds of those sales of public lands shall be deposited into the permanent State School Fund.” The idea is certainly part of the discussion, but even if states retain the land, there could be some unwelcome changes.
“I can give you example after example of state-owned land that is no longer open to the public. This is public land we are talking about. You and I already own it,” Tawney says.
He points to Idaho, where members of the legislature are proposing leasing state lands exclusively to outfitters. The general public would no longer be allowed to hunt it. Colorado hunters not only have to buy hunting licenses, they are required to buy an additional permit to hunt State Land Board land. However, 82 percent of the agency’s property is closed to hunting.
“Imagine if millions of acres of federal land was handed over to the states,” says Tawney. “We could see the same things happening in other states and on a larger scale.”
Even if states have no plans to sell land, it’s clear to Tawney and other hunters that lawmakers pushing for the idea plan on squeezing more money out of any land they take over.
The American Lands Council, a corporate-backed umbrella group promoting the transfer of federal land, says on its website, “…access has been greatly denied for the multiple use of our public lands. Responsibly utilizing these resources will grow the economy and the tax base…” In other words, more oil and gas extraction, more board feet of lumber, more mining and more grazing, says Tawney. “The threat is very real,” he says.
Webster agrees, pointing to a study by three Utah universities that shows a transfer of federal land would result in a huge financial loss for the state. It would cost Utah taxpayers $280 million per year. Montana would spend an estimated $500 million annually on firefighting, maintenance and other management expenses currently covered by the federal government.
“Managing public facilities, fire control, road maintenance, all that costs money,” says Webster. “States aren’t capable of taking on such a huge financial burden. How do you think they’ll try to make that up? They will ramp up resource extraction, raise taxes or sell the land when they can’t afford to maintain it.”
So who would buy millions of acres of BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service or national forest land? Billionaires like Dan and Fariss Wilks, Texas oilmen who own more than 340,000 acres in Montana and who have been buying land at a rapid pace.
“There are a lot of corporations that would love to get their hands on oil and gas-rich land,” Webster adds. “Foreign corporations in particular would have little interest in protecting the natural resources the way they are protected now.”
Impossible? One high-ranking member of the waterfowl conservation community thinks the idea will never amount to much. He may be right, at least if sportsmen have a say. BHA chapters in several western states organized rallies with huge turnouts. Some state legislators got the message.
“The money alone is reason enough for me to doubt this will go anywhere. Do you really think the feds are willing to give up all the revenue from oil and gas leases?” he wonders.
The U.S. Treasury took in $7.3 billion in leases and other fees related to drilling and mining in 2014.
The money goes into the Treasury’s general fund. That’s one reason a number of states are pushing the idea. States get their own cut of energy and mineral leases on federal land, but they want more. Taking control of public land allows them to take a larger chunk of that money and some representatives in Washington are eager to help their home state accomplish that.
“That this is even still part of the conversation is ridiculous,” says Tawney. “We need to hammer legislators on this because once it’s gone, public land is never coming back.”