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.
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.
In 1976, Congress touched off the first Sagebrush Rebellion by approving the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which declared that federal land within state borders would remain under federal control until further notice.
Advocates on both sides have been arguing over the legalities ever since. Advocates of federal land insist that the issue is settled, but critics call for Congress to treat Western states the same as other states.
"You don't change these solemn compacts of statehood as the Supreme Court unanimously said in 2009 by a unilateral policy from Congress," Mr. Ivory said at the debate.
On Friday, about two dozen members and supporters of the Bundy family filed with the Clark County sheriff criminal complaints against federal agents. Accusations included assault and threats with a deadly weapon, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Mr. Bundy, 68, lost significant public support two weeks ago when he wondered aloud whether black Americans were "better off as slaves" than on public assistance and said black social misery today was "because they never learned how to pick cotton." He did not accompany his son Ammon Bundy and others in filing the complaints.
"We expect the sheriff to investigate the crimes," said Ammon Bundy, who was hit with a stun gun during an April 9 clash with BLM agents at the ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
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