The United States of America was founded, not as a centralized state wherein all power is concentrated in the central government, but as a federation wherein political power is diffused by dividing it between a national (federal) government and the republic’s constituent state governments.

Our Founders conceived federalism as one of the institutional mechanisms to check and balance political power so as to prevent government from being so dictatorial as to become a threat to the People’s inherent rights and liberties.

This founding principle of federalism is codified in the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

But America has been drifting away from the founding vision, with the federal government amassing more and more power, and the presidency becoming increasingly imperial.

For the first time, political leaders of NINE western states have convened to talk about wresting control of state lands away from the federal government.

Western states lawmakersL to r: Montana House Speaker Mark Blasdel, Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart (photo by Scott Sommerdorf, Salt Lake Tribune)

Kristen Moulton reports for The Salt Lake Tribune that on April 18, 2014, more than 50 political leaders (state legislators and county commissioners) from 9 western states convened a daylong closed-door meeting in Salt Lake City, the Legislative Summit on the Transfer for Public Landsto talk about wresting control of their oil-, timber- and mineral-rich lands away from the federal government.

The nine western states were Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The summit was organized by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory and Montana state Sen. Jennifer FielderU.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also attended the meeting and addressed the group over lunch.

The summit, described by Ivory as “It’s simply time. The urgency is now,” had already been in the works before this month’s tense standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management over cattle grazing.

Utah Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart said, “What’s happened in Nevada is really just a symptom of a much larger problem.” She emphasized that the states’ intent was never to take over national parks and wilderness created by an act of Congress. “We are not interested in having control of every acre. There are lands that are off the table that rightly have been designated by the federal government.”

Montana state Sen. Fielder said federal land management is hamstrung by bad policies, politicized science and severe federal budget cuts: “Those of us who live in the rural areas know how to take care of lands. We have to start managing these lands. It’s the right thing to do for our people, for our environment, for our economy and for our freedoms.”

Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke said, “It’s time the states in the West come of age. We’re every bit as capable of managing the lands in our boundaries as the states east of Colorado.” As evidence, Bedke pointed to how Idaho’s state-managed forests and rangeland have suffered less damage and watershed degradation from wildfire than lands managed by federal agencies.

Utah state Rep. Ivory said the issue is of interest to urban as well as rural lawmakers, in part because they see oilfields and other resources that could be developed to create jobs and fund education. Moreover, the federal government’s debt threatens both its management of vast tracts of the West as well as its ability to come through with payments in lieu of taxes to the states. Utah gets 32% of its revenue from the federal government, much of it unrelated to public lands. Ivory warns, “If we don’t stand up and act, seeing that trajectory of what’s coming … those problems are going to get bigger.”

In 2013, Utah’s state legislature passed HB142, which was sponsored by Ivory and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert. HB142 demands the federal government make good on its promises in the 1894 Enabling Act for Utah to become a state, by relinquishing title to federal lands in Utah. A study is underway at the University of Utah to analyze how Utah could manage the land now in federal control.

None of the other Western states has gone as far as Utah, demanding Congress turn over federal lands. But five have task forces or other analyses underway to get a handle on the costs and benefits.

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~Eowyn

Dr. Eowyn is the Editor of Fellowship of the Minds.