- - Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tensions are rising in the wake of federal busybodies who are making such pests of themselves that land, and who owns it, is becoming a hot-button issue west of the Rockies. Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy’s high-profile standoff with the Bureau of Land Management earlier this year put the issue into the headlines.

The numbers tell the story. The federal government holds the deed to more than 30 percent of Colorado and Washington state, more than 40 percent of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Wyoming, and half of Oregon, Idaho and Utah.

The administration keeps taking more land to add to its holdings, and now a few Republicans in Congress are trying to do something about it. This week, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas threatened to attach an amendment to a hunting and fishing bill that would have prohibited the federal government from owning more than half of the land in any one state. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who isn’t concerned that in his home state of Nevada 81 percent is titled by the feds, refused to allow the amendment be heard. He scuttled the bill.

Legislators who want to reclaim their territory are working out a sensible plan to make that happen. Five Western states have established committees to catalog the benefits of transferring federal land back to the states whence it came, according to Rob Nikolewski of the website New Mexico Watchdog.

The land-transfer proposals they have in mind would apply to “multiple-use” federal property already set aside for economic purposes, such as energy exploration, timber production and grazing, or recreation. Environmentalists would be appeased by a promise to retain the current restrictions on how the land could be used.

Returning federal land would be the boost the economy desperately needs. A University of Wyoming economist finds that the energy-exploration opportunities alone on multiple-use federal lands in the West would create more than 200,000 jobs and generate $5 billion in local, state and federal taxes.

The Bureau of Land Management, which is meant to pay for itself through fees and permits for grazing, mining, and oil and gas exploration, actually costs taxpayers more than $1.1 billion a year. Timber sales, recreation fees, mineral production and energy rights should easily bankroll the National Forest System’s budget, but it doesn’t. The agency costs taxpayers $1.6 billion annually.

Earlier this year, Nevada’s land-use task force calculated how much money states raise when they manage the land. Idaho pockets $17 for each acre under direct control. Arizona makes $23, Utah $33 and New Mexico $57. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, loses 91 cents for every acre it manages in Nevada.

With 640 million acres to manage, federal bureaucrats are in way over their heads. It only makes sense for them to hand back some of these forests, deserts and mountains to eager states with far more incentive to keep their territory in pristine condition. Relieved of a few million acres of responsibility, the feds might do a better job of tending to their remaining tasks.

The land was intended as a rich source of natural resources to benefit Americans. The intruders should scram.