Add the federal government’s ownership of land to the list of things that are viewed differently in the American East and West.
“We’re talking the same language. We don’t mean the same thing,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, at a Heritage Foundation session Tuesday looking at ways to reduce Washington’s control of vast swaths of the American West.
More than 90 percent of the 640 million acres of land owned by the federal government is in Mr. Bishop’s half of the country, making for a differing attitude toward Washington as the local landlord.
“When you talk about public lands, my good friends in the East, the only contact they have is the national park nearby,” said Mr. Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee overseeing public lands. “You say public lands to them and they think of a pretty tree by a pretty lake. Those of us who live in the West, we deal with the [Bureau of Land Management]. When we say public lands, we think of sagebrush.”
The session was held against the backdrop of the recent tense standoff between the BLM and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing rights and federal authority. With so much of the West owned by the federal government, lawmakers and leaders alike said a discussion is overdue on how the lands can be better used.
“You don’t have to have everything managed by Washington in order to have it done well,” said Mr. Bishop. “States and tribes are showing that they can do just as good a job, if not a better job.”
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Carl Graham, director of the Sutherland Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a conservative Salt Lake City think tank, said federal lands constitute 50 percent of Western states, locking up half of the region’s economic potential.
“If the federal government owned half the casinos in Las Vegas and started closing doors or shutting down blackjack tables, God forbid,” he said. “Can you imagine the impact that would have on the Las Vegas economy?”
Mr. Graham said proponents of more economic use of government holdings aren’t going after the “national treasures” that make up around 15 percent of federally-owned land in the West. Most of the land the government owns, he said, is already categorized as multiple use and could be developed.
“That’s an area the size of Virginia within each Western state, plus or minus a New Jersey or two depending on the state, that we’re increasingly losing access to,” he said.
But those living in the West aren’t the only ones seeing economic potential slip away.
“This gets people who actually live in the East,” said Mr. Bishop. “You add up all the revenue that comes from these lands and all the expenses we have from the lands. They’re putting up $8 billion to $9 billion a year out of the pockets of those in the East for the wonderful opportunity of controlling the West.”
Mr. Bishop said federal encroachment “harms kids in the West” by taking away access to the state’s resources. Over time, Eastern states can raise twice the amount of money for public education that their Western counterparts can, he said, because of the differing tax bases.
“The West gets screwed over in our education funding compared to what happens in the East,” he said.
Immigration reform and federal lands don’t always go hand in hand, but Mr. Bishop said federally-owned lands prohibit a safe Southern border.
With 80 percent of the U.S. border with Mexico owned by the federal government and 50 percent of that being labeled as wilderness, U.S. Border Patrol agents aren’t able to do anything but “foot reconnaissance.”
“I think one of the reasons we cannot look people in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, the southern border is secure,’ is because the laws that create those kind of land designations prohibit the Border Patrol from doing their job,” he said.
Utah has been the leader in seeking the transfer of federally-owned land to the states. A 2012 state law calls for the federal government to transfer the title of public lands to the state on or before December 2014. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada are studying legislation on their federally-owned lands by 2015, Mr. Graham said.