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A Primer on Transferring Federal Lands to the States


On July 27th, 2015, County Commissioner Cindy Riegel introduced Resolution 2015-0727, a public lands proclamation that would recognize “the value of federal lands to the County’s economy, recreation, heritage and quality of life; and opposing the proposal for the state of Idaho to take wholesale ownership of public lands within the State of Idaho”. For lack of a second, the resolution was tabled. It is VARD’s position that failing to pass this resolution is a missed opportunity to affirm the benefits provided to the Teton Valley by federal lands and speak out against the transfer of public lands.

Throughout various 2015 state legislative sessions, a handful of politicians have been vocal in calling for the transfer of national public lands to Western states. Spearheading the effort is the American Lands Council (ALC), a nonprofit foundation consisting of individuals, counties, businesses, organizations, and community leaders advocating for the timely and orderly transfer of public lands to willing states for local control. The lands in question exclude existing national parks, congressionally designated wilderness areas, Native American reservations, and military installations. Such a policy, argues ALC, will provide better public access, better environmental health, and greater economic productivity that is self-supporting by developing natural resources on public lands. According to ALC, the problems caused by federal management of public lands include record-setting wildfires caused by dysfunctional management, the imposed reliance on foreign powers for essential natural resources which are locked up in federal lands, a stifling of economic opportunity for Western communities, and a general affront and undermining of each State’s independence.

However the problems identified with such an approach are numerous, namely that such a policy would be unconstitutional, severely impact access to public lands, expensive, and lacking in public support. An analysis by the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah concludes that Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act (TPLA), which calls for the transfer of title of 31.2 million acres of federal public land in Utah, and serves as a template for other Western states poised to follow suit, presents a weak legal case. The Authors determined that, according to the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution, “The federal government has absolute control over public lands, including constitutional authority to retain lands in federal ownership”[1]. On multiple occasions the U.S. Supreme court has reiterated that such authority over public lands is “without limitation”. Furthermore, nearly every Western state that entered the Union agreed to “Enabling Acts”. The State of Idaho’s enabling act reads “And the people of the state of Idaho do agree and declare that we forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof”.

Because the TPLA is a model for other state’s transfer efforts it is important to point out that it lacks any sort of effective strategy to balance the competing interests between development and preservation, include a mandate for multiple uses, or even define multiple-use at the state level. Organizations such as ALC and other prominent transfer backers regularly assert that states would be more efficient owners, claiming a commitment to public access while pushing the economic benefits based off a revenue maximization model. The fact is these two models of land management are vastly different and are oftentimes at odds with one another.

A further irony is that dozens of Western counties reliant on federal funds for critical county services are actively working against their best interests and the public opinion of the citizens whom they have been elected to serve by proposing public land transfer legislation and by supporting organizations like the ALC. If public lands were to be transferred, counties across the West stand to lose much needed payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT funds. According to the Center for Western Priorities, 47 counties spent a combined $219,000 of taxpayer money to be members of the ALC. These memberships are bought by commissioners without a vote from their constituents and contradict the majority of taxpayer’s opinions on the transfer of public lands. A recent poll conducted in Western states by Colorado College found that 68% of Western voters oppose the transfer of federal public lands[2]. Research conducted by the Center for Western Priorities determined that out of $436 Million dollars administered by the Department of the Interior’s PILT program, over $71 million dollars went directly to ALC member counties last year. The irony of this approach is that these counties are spending thousands of dollars in the hopes of losing millions more.

In order to make up the deficits that would result from a loss of PILT funds, counties would be forced to rapidly increase the pace and scale of development at a cost to other critical uses of our public lands like wildlife, clean water supplies, and recreation. A study conducted by the Policy Analysis Group at the University of Idaho determined that if Idaho were to move ahead with a proposed transfer of 6.9 million acres of National Forest System lands and 9.5 million acres of BLM lands it would end up costing the state $111 million dollars per year under a low-end scenario, $60 million a year under a medium scenario, and under the high-end scenario the state would see a revenue of $24 million per year. This analysis is based upon varying prices of timber and the amount that would need to be felled yearly minus the cost of recreation opportunities currently provided, wildland fire management, and highway maintenance. The amount of money paid by PILT for the proposed lands to transfer in 2012 was $33 million dollars. This is a lose-lose situation resulting in a degraded ecosystem, a loss of revenue to counties, and a loss of recreational opportunities.


[1] Keiter, R.; Ruple J. “The Transfer of Public Lands Movement: Taking the ‘Public’ Out of Public Lands” S.J. Quinney College of Law research paper No.99, 2015.

[2] Colorado College State of the Rockies Project 2015 Conservation in the West Poll


For questions, contact Brendan Conboy, Program & Development Associate