East of the Mississippi, the federal government owns about 4 percent of land in the United States. In the West, however, it’s a completely different story.
In the 11 states that make up the West, federally owned land makes up 47 percent. In Oregon, it’s more than half.
Land ownership and management of Western lands are at the heart of the issue with the takeover of the secluded Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. The protesters — few of whom had Oregon ties — occupied Malheur in early January and finally surrendered 40 days later, after one of them was shot and killed by an Oregon state trooper.
The occupiers want control of federal lands to be handed over to ranchers and local governments.
Ammon Bundy, leader of the group, told The New York Times that his goal was to put loggers, ranchers and miners back to work. This was a followup confrontation to one in 2014 between Bundy’s father and the federal government over illegal grazing on federal lands in Nevada, where the United States also owns more than half the land.
Bundy now sits in a prison cell, awaiting trial for possession of firearms, among other charges.
The occupation brings to light the issue of federal ownership of Western lands, and that’s what the Columbia Basin Badger Club intends to dive into at its next forum, which takes place Friday in Richland.
The Bureau of Land Management controls 247 millon acres of land, and it makes much of it available for lease to graze or mine. But some of it is set aside for conservation (including Malheur), meaning no development may take place.
According to The New York Times, Congress has considered transferring federal public land ownership to states. Proponents believe states would be easier to work with — and the states would be able to reap financial benefits by being able to collect revenue from rent, taxes and permits.
Whether state stewardship of Western land would be better for ranchers and miners remains to be seen, though one study indicates it would cost Utah $275 million a year to manage.
It’s all pretty complicated, but it’s a vital issue for those of us who live here in the West — particularly in a region where the federal government is so prevalent.
To help us understand the issue with greater clarity, the Columbia Basin Badger Club has brought in two top national experts on federal land use. They are:
Ken Ivory was elected to the Utah House of Representatives in 2010. He has developed passage of legislation, including the “Transfer of Public Lands Act.” Ivory is the founding president of the American Land Council, which has become a national leader in the effort to gain better access to public lands. He is the author of “Where’s the Line? How States Protect the Constitution,” published in 2011.
Dave Chadwick is executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. He has worked for such organizations as the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The Montana Wildlife Federation is a coalition of hunters, anglers and conservationists. The South Dakota native has a master’s degree from the University of Michigan’s school of natural resources and environment.
The Columbia Basin Badger Club is a nonpartisan Tri-City organization that is dedicated to civil discourse on topics important to our region.
Andy Perdue is program chairman for the Columbia Basin Badger Club. The longtime newspaperman lives in Richland.