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Why Utah's Federal Lands Protest Matters in Washington State

Why Utah's Federal Lands Protest Matters in Washington State

January 14, 2015

This is the last in a five-part series of articles about federal control over land in the American West, you can read part four here. Legislation adopted in Utah calls on Congress to hand over certain federal lands there to state control. That law set the end of 2014 as the deadline for federal action.

A little more than a quarter of all the land in Washington state is owned by the federal government. In Utah, where state officials are leading an effort to reduce federal land ownership, that number is 66.5%. Yet there are good reasons why Washingtonians, and all Americans, should support Utah's legal and political challenge to federal control over Western lands.

Efficiency. Government, at any level, is a kind of monopoly and therefore prone to inefficiency. Yet the federal government, so massive and so distant, is especially unlikely to manage western lands well. Consider that the Bureau of Land Management offers some grazing rights below market value and the Forest Service losing money on timber sales. State and local authorities are more likely to be held accountable for such boondoggles. In fact, states already manage public lands well, as described in part four.

Even more gains are possible for a state like Washington, where state and federal public lands are often interspersed in a checkerboard pattern. Consolidating those lands would allow for better management at a lower net cost to taxpayers. It could also dramatically increase the amount of Washington state lands dedicated to supporting education. State trust lands generated $215 million in revenue in 2013. If Washington state, rather than Washington, D.C., owned more of the public lands within the state, this could mean more revenues to support local communities and schools.

Diversity. Land is a special categories in the law of property, another is works of art. Items in these categories are inherently distinct: you cannot simply substitute one parcel of land or one painting for another. From too great a distance, however, everything blends together. Faraway managers are forced to quantify the qualitative, to reduce what may be irreducible. Federal land managers cannot see the trees for the forest, let alone the families and local communities living alongside them. To put it more bluntly, why trust federal officials who likely cannot pronounce "Quilcene" or "Pend Oreille" to make the right decisions for the people in those communities?

The economy. The brightest spot in the slow climb out of the Great Recession has been the oil and gas industry (even the Progressive Policy Institute branded the industry "Investment Heroes"). Technological leaps have made individual wells far more productive. This was a boon for oil producers and has now become a boon for American consumers (and is clobbering authoritarian regimes like Venezuela and Russia). It is also great for the environment, and not just because of natural gas. As each well becomes more efficient, fewer well platforms are needed to produce the same amount of energy. While some environmentalists celebrate these advances, D.C.'s green lobbying machines continue working to deny access to federal lands, even lands set aside specifically for resource production.

Constitutional federalism and self-government. Today, members of Congress from New York City have more say over two-thirds of the land in Utah than that state's own elected representatives. The constitutional structure of federalism was created to prevent exactly that. Most power is left with the states, and enumerated federal powers relate to true national interests like self preservation and interstate and international trade. The federal government was never intended to be a land manager, nor to use land ownership to trump constitutional limits. Doing so treats western states less like coequal states and more like colonies. It disrespects the people within those states and their institutions. And it throws the constitutional system out of balance for all Americans.

Congress failed to meet Utah's deadline, but this is hardly the end of the story. Utah's elected leaders plan to pursue their case both in courts of law and in the more important court of public opinion. Americans everywhere have a stake in restoring the balance of constitutional federalism and getting Washington, D.C., out of the land management business.

To follow Utah's efforts or to find out what you can do, visit the American Lands Council and the Sutherland Institute's Center for Self-Government in the West. (A version of this series was also published at InterAlia, the blog of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.)

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