Public Lands & Waters photo

As the new year and a new Congress approach, sportsmen’s conservation groups say they will need two things to avert an ultimate disaster in 2015: Hunters and anglers who are more active than ever, and President Obama’s veto pen.

That ultimate disaster? Congress giving away our western national public lands to individual states.

The idea to sell or give away these lands, which has long been on the fringe of political possibilities, is now a major concern among sportsmen’s groups due to the results of the mid-term elections. Republicans in the House who have been pushing this idea for several years ([proposed Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act](http://Disposal/ of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2013)) will now have a majority in the Senate to move this disaster to the president’s desk.

This isn’t my opinion. It’s the official policy stated by the Republican National Committee last year in a resolution calling “upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of public lands to all willing western states for the benefit of these western states and the nation as a whole.”

The year before, the GOP budget called for selling off public lands to help reduce the budget deficit.

With both houses now run by the GOP, groups protecting sportsmen’s interests such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are very worried.

“These are some of the last places the average person can go to hunt and fish, regardless of how much money they make,” said Joel Webster, Director, of the Center for Western Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The groups behind this are well organized and well funded. They’re trying to sell the idea that the states can do a better job of managing public property. But history tells us that just isn’t the case.”

The issue was addressed in “An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah,” a report from Utah State University on the financial consequences if that state is successful in its bid to take 31.2 million acres of national lands from the rest of us. The report was ordered by the state’s legislature, which is pushing to take these lands. But the report’s bottom line was still less than a clarion call for action:

“From a strictly financial perspective, it is likely the state of Utah could take ownership of the lands and cover the costs to manage them. Our research also suggests that it could put a strain on the state’s funding priorities in the early years as the state adjusts to the loss of federal dollars, evaluates land resources and conditions, and develops programs to replace those now managed by federal agencies.”

History shows that when a state does get control of federal land, the end result is almost always development. Utah is a perfect example, said Land Tawney, executive director of BHA.
Utah already has divested half of the land originally granted to it (only 3.4 million acres remain of the 7.5 million acres originally granted),” he said. “Sportsmen know that state budgets face a lot of pressure, and it’s hard to believe that access and fish and wildlife habitat will remain a priority when the next budgetary crisis comes along in Utah.”
The TRCP’s Webster agreed.

“Utah and other western states have long been in the business of selling public lands to private interests. Sportsmen do not believe that this selling trend would change if individual states were to acquire federal public lands.”

When you consider many of these states are also the homes of politicians screaming to open more public lands to energy and mining development, it isn’t difficult to see where the road ultimately will end. If a state owns the land, it will not have to abide by the many mandatory considerations for fish, wildlife and outdoors recreation on federal lands.

“Public hunting and fishing access in the West depends on keeping America’s public lands where they are: under the management of federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management,” noted Webster.

“I can’t stress how important this issue is to the future of public hunting and fishing, especially in the West. We need sportsmen to be actively involved in this.”

If not, a bill giving away our national land—property each of us co-owns—likely will end up on President Obama’s desk. Right now that wouldn’t be such a bad result. Just this month the president issued an order removing one of the nations premier fisheries—Alaska’s Bristol Bay—from future oil and gas development. But who knows what politics will be like in the future—or who will be president in two more years?

Sportsmen need to become educated and involved in this issue today to let their congressmen know where they stand.

The best place to start is with the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers excellent report: “Our Public Lands—Not For Sale.