With interest raised by the armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this winter, federal land control was debated Friday at the Columbia Basin Badger Club.
Ken Ivory argued that the root of the takeover was the same frustration people in Western communities feel as the federal government reduces grazing, logging, mining and access to federal lands.
Dave Chadwick countered that the standoff was the work of a couple dozen angry and confused people, not representative of the majority of Westerners, who polls overwhelmingly show love public land and see it as an asset to their communities and the economy.
Ivory and Chadwick, leaders in the debate on management of federal lands, faced off before a crowd of about 130 people.
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Ivory, founding president of the American Lands Council and a Utah state legislator, is an advocate of turning over federal lands to state control.
Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, says there is ample room for improvement in management of federal lands, but that’s no reason to abandon federal management for a “wildly speculative” approach.
In the Eastern United States, the federal government owns about 4 percent of the land, but in 11 western states, 47 percent of the land is federally owned.
Eastern states have fought for state control of land, forcing the federal government to make good on statehood promises to relinquish land, Ivory said. Before 1854, Florida land was 90 percent federally controlled.
But the state could not grow its economy and people were leaving, Ivory said. Today, less than 1 percent of land is under federal ownership.
Now the forest is like a dynamite factory that’s run by chain-smoking chimpanzees.
Ken Ivory, American Lands Council
“Why shouldn’t the federal government keep the same promise it kept there east of the Rockies?” Ivory said.
He gave examples of the federal government not acting in what state residents believed was their best interests.
In Pend Oreille County, a sheriff could not take a snowmobile into the wilderness to look for a runaway who was feared to be at risk, preventing a search, Ivory said.
In Montana, elite state firefighters who already had helicopters in the air were ordered to land by federal officials as lightning strikes started multiple fires last year.
Thousands of acres burned and valleys were polluted for weeks. When ground cover is destroyed, watersheds and fisheries are ruined for decades. The past year saw record-setting fires across the West.
“Now the forest is like a dynamite factory that’s run by chain-smoking chimpanzees,” Ivory said.
The answer is to let those whose lives and livelihoods are most affected by the health of the economy and the environment manage what is now local land, he said.
However, that does not mean he supported the occupation of the Malheur refuge. Guns are not the way to answer a constitutional question, he said.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation
Local control has worked in Canada, where during the past decade, land, water and resources have been turned over to provinces and territories, resulting in better management, Ivory said.
A study by the Property and Environment Research Center, which advocates for property rights, found that when the federal government manages land, it loses 27 cents per dollar spent. The states make $14.51 per dollar spent, Ivory said.
Chadwick countered, that “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
In Colorado, 82 percent of state land is closed to the public. In Washington, land is required to be managed to achieve the maximum development and use of resources, Chadwick said. Idaho is required to manage land to achieve financial return.
States could not afford to manage what is now federal land for the multiple uses now provided, he said. Fees to access land would increase and land would be closed off. Because of high costs, states would focus on unsustainable activities for maximum revenue, followed by selling off land to generate revenue.
Nevada, for example, was given 2.7 million acres at statehood, but today only 3,000 acres remain that have not been sold, he said.
When Teddy Roosevelt set aside land for the first national wildlife refuge, it was because lands were being mismanaged and needed to be protected, he said.
Republican senators and representatives, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have proposed legislation to sell off federal land in recent years.
Public land is important for outdoor recreation, Chadwick said. About 95 percent of Westerners visit public land each year. They also are a source of responsible development of natural resources with oil and gas, with development increasing on Bureau of Land Management lands and 7,500 permits waiting to be drilled on federal land.
Public lands also contribute to the recreational economy, including indirectly. Western job growth is increasingly being driven by highly skilled and highly paid work in technology, health and finance, and employees in those industries are attracted to places with public land access, Chadwick said.
Job growth in nonurban communities is far greater in counties with ample public land than those with little, he said.
As seen in the Malheur occupation, there are people who want to see public lands sold off and political traction is building, Chadwick said.
Texas senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz proposed an amendment in 2014 requiring the sale of land if more than 50 percent of the land base in states was federally managed. Fellow Republican and Texan Rep. Ted Poe proposed selling off federal land to build highways, meaning forests in Montana could be sold to build highways in Texas, Chadwick said.
Rather than giving federal land to the states and risking the access of future generations to land Americans enjoy now, work should be done to improve federal management and adopt proposals to increase local input on how land is managed, Chadwick said.