Public Land Isn't Our Land?

Public Land Isn't Our Land?

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."

duck-hunting-public-land

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."

public-land-duck-hunting


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."

Management Transfers


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.

public-lands-for-waterfowl-access

"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.

Financial Burden

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.

duck-hunting-on-public-land

"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."

Recommended for You

Here's how to cash in on the spreading numbers of white-fronts. Hunting Tactics

Take Advantage of the Specklebelly Surge

John Gordon

Here's how to cash in on the spreading numbers of white-fronts.

Nourish your pup's noggin for elite performance. Retriever

Gun Dog Nutrition & Intelligence

Tony J. Peterson

Nourish your pup's noggin for elite performance.

A dainty English setter suited for the uplands has the drive for waterfowl. Stories

The Accidental Duck Dog

Jack Ballard

A dainty English setter suited for the uplands has the drive for waterfowl.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Swedish Duck Hunt

Swedish Duck Hunt

Kevin Steele takes part in a family driven duck hunt in Sweden.

Browning A5 Shotgun -

Browning A5 Shotgun - 'Gun Stories'

Gun Stories host Joe Mantegna talks about the origin and history of the Browning A5 shotgun.

Picking a Puppy

Picking a Puppy

Wildfowl contributor Mark Romanack shares advice about choosing your next retriever.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Let's face it, that old mud motor from two years ago isn't cuttin' it any longer.

Of course, it Boats

8 Best Mud Motors for 2016

David Hart - May 26, 2016

Let's face it, that old mud motor from two years ago isn't cuttin' it any longer. Of course,...

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call. Calls

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2019

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during...

Author John M. Taylor has broken down the top waterfowl shotguns for the 2018 season. Shotguns

Best Waterfowl Shotguns of 2018

John Taylor - September 25, 2018

Author John M. Taylor has broken down the top waterfowl shotguns for the 2018 season.

See More Stories

More Politics

For 20 years now, lead shot hasn't legally left the barrel of a shotgun pointed at a duck or goose Politics

Lead Shot Still Controversial 20 Years Later

Angela Pham - December 20, 2011

For 20 years now, lead shot hasn't legally left the barrel of a shotgun pointed at a duck or...



Anyone who was slapping mosquitoes in Stuttgart in late December, wondering what happened to duck Politics

Hot Topic: Climate Change and Duck Season

David Hart - March 12, 2012

Anyone who was slapping mosquitoes in Stuttgart in late December, wondering what happened to...

Where he hunts depends on a number of factors, but one thing Land Tawney doesn't have to worry Politics

Public Land Isn't Our Land?

David Hart - August 18, 2016

Where he hunts depends on a number of factors, but one thing Land Tawney doesn't have to worry

See More Politics

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.