Hold your horses: Nevada standoff reveals bigger fight over federally owned land

FILE - In this April 12, 2014, file photo, the Bundy family and their supporters fly the American flag as their cattle is released by the Bureau of Land Management back onto public land outside of Bunkerville, Nev. Armed  backers of embattled rancher Cliven Bundy are still living along a state highway in southern Nevada, almost three weeks after an armed standoff halted U.S.  Bureau of Land Management plans to round up cattle he grazes on public land. The  BLM says Bundy owes $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties.  (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean, File) LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LAS VEGAS SUN OUTFILE - In this April 12, 2014, file photo, the Bundy family and their supporters fly the American flag as their cattle is released by the Bureau of Land Management back onto public land outside of Bunkerville, Nev. Armed backers of embattled rancher Cliven Bundy are still living along a state highway in southern Nevada, almost three weeks after an armed standoff halted U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to round up cattle he grazes on public land. The BLM says Bundy owes $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean, File) LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LAS VEGAS SUN OUT
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DENVER — Behind the hoopla surrounding Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management is a growing resentment over the federal government’s status as the largest landowner in the West.

“This is so much bigger than one rancher in Nevada,” Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, who heads the American Lands Council, said in an April 23 online debate sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune.


SEE ALSO: Nevada Dem calls for purge of ‘armed separatists’ from Bundy ranch


How much land does the federal government own? A 2012 Congressional Research Survey said the federal government owns about 640 million acres, or 28 percent of the nation’s land mass. Roughly 90 percent of that property is in the West.

Put another way, one out of every two acres in the West is federally owned. In Nevada, the figure is 81.1 percent; in Alaska, 61.8 percent; in Utah, 66.5 percent; in Oregon, 53 percent. In Connecticut and Iowa, the federal government owns 0.3 percent of the land.

“The federal estate is larger than France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom combined,” said Robert Gordon, a senior adviser for the Heritage Foundation. “It is too big and was never intended to be preserved as one big park, but the left is strangling use of it and with it, rural America.”

Although Nevada has received most of the national attention since Mr. Bundy’s clash last month with BLM agents, the heaviest push to wrest control of federal lands is coming from Utah. In 2012, Gov. Gary Richard Herbert, a Republican, signed a bill demanding that the federal government relinquish control of more than 20 million acres of federal land within Utah’s borders by 2015.

The federal government hasn’t shown any inclination to do so, but support for the idea is growing. Last month, Mr. Ivory and Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder hosted more than 50 legislators from nine states at a Legislative Summit on the Transfer of Public Lands in Salt Lake City.

“It’s time the states in the West come of age,” Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke said in The Salt Lake Tribune. “We’re every bit as capable of managing the lands in our boundaries as the states east of Colorado.”

There is a reason Utah is leading the drive. In September 1996, President Clinton cordoned off 1.8 million acres of federal land for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Critics decried the move as a federal land grab designed to boost Mr. Clinton’s stock with environmentalists in an election year.

Those opposed to giving federal land to the states argue that the locals aren’t up to the task of managing that property, either because they lack the sophistication or they are too beholden to private interests.

At the Salt Lake Tribune debate, former BLM Director Patrick Shea said he opposed the movement to put states in charge of federal land within their borders.

“I don’t think states are capable of the complexity of managing these lands, and I think people like Rep. Ivory get off on these rhetorical pitches that don’t have a historical basis and they certainly don’t have a scientific basis,” Mr. Shea said.

State officials argue that the federal agency is herding rural Westerners off the land by tightening restrictions, many of them driven by the Endangered Species Act, as well as lax management.

At last year’s Western Governors’ Association meeting, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, linked wildfires to federal land management of the forests. “There’s a real high degree of frustration when it comes to management of our federal forest lands,” he said.

Many states added to the union during the 1800s were largely federally owned, but the government was actively trying to give land to homesteaders and settlers. By the early 1900s, when Western states were still new to the union, the focus began to shift to conservation of public lands.

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