Selling a Birthright: What would the West be like without its federal lands?

For 30 years, a handful of special interests has been trying to steal the public’s forests and rangelands. The faces of the Sagebrush Rebellion are shirttail bandits like Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has spent a lifetime raping public rangeland in southern Nevada and has flouted federal law and court orders for the better part of 20 years, but Bundy and his confederates couldn’t get news coverage next to the comic strips in the Pahrump, Nevada, Valley Times if it weren’t for the potent financial, political, and legal backing they get from a much different band of activists — the billionaire supporters of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). With the big money behind it, the Sagebrush Rebellion simply won’t die.

In the spring of 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a bill calling on the federal government to “transfer title of public lands to the state on or before December 31, 2014.” In 2013, the Idaho legislature authorized a two-year interim committee to “study the process for the State of Idaho to acquire title to and control of public lands controlled by the federal government in the state.” Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming have since passed similar bills, and the Colorado and New Mexico legislatures are considering their own versions.

Of course, the states can’t force the federal government to give up its holdings; a move like that would require approval from Congress in Washington. And it’s clear that the same forces that are working to shove proposals through state legislatures are at work in Congress as well. In late March, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would help fund initiatives “to sell or transfer to a State or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument,” which is to say, any national forest land, BLM holding, or national wildlife refuge said state or local governments might want.

This isn’t the work of a renegade bunch of disgruntled brush poppers. It’s a well-funded, carefully coordinated effort to disinherit 318 million Americans inflicted on us by a tiny group of billionaire outlanders. The injury would be felt across the country, but it would be most painful for the people who have chosen to live, often at great personal cost, in the 12 western states that contain most of the nation’s public land.

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