The decades-old clash over federal lands in the West
As Christopher Ketcham recounts in Harper's, Western cattle barons began engaging "in acts of defiance against the BLM, opening dirt tracks onto grazing allotments that had been closed, bulldozing new roads, overstocking their allotments, violating permit agreements, and refusing to pay grazing fees."
This so-called Sagebrush Rebellion ultimately fizzled out in the 1980s. Efforts to return the lands to the states died in Congress, in part because many Westerners opposed them. And the courts have repeatedly said that the federal government has the right to manage these lands. But the underlying tension persists in some areas today.
How federal lands are managed — and why it can be controversial
Federal land in the West can basically be divided into six broad categories, seen below:
Some states want to take back federal lands — but haven't gotten far
The antics in Oregon by Cliven Bundy's son Ammon and his militia obviously aren't going to resolve these long-simmering tensions. Bundy is currently demanding that the federal government turn over the entire 187,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to ranchers, loggers, and miners. Even people sympathetic with his concerns agree that he's the worst possible spokesman for this cause.
But some western states have been exploring a more peaceful approach: Why not turn the federal land over to the states? In 2012, Utah passed a bill demanding that the federal government do just that. This would ultimately require an act of Congress to pull off, but the idea has support from some leading GOP presidential candidates, including Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
The debate around land transfers is exceedingly complex, but suffice to say that it's not so clear-cut. The Utah bill's supporters, including state representative Ken Ivory, argue that states can be better stewards of their own lands than the federal government could — and they'd reap revenue by expanding oil and gas development. The corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council is very much in favor of reverting federal lands back to the states, precisely because states would look more favorably on mining and drilling.
But plenty of other Westerners don't think it's a good idea. Conservation and outdoors groups aren't too keen on opening up new wilderness areas for drilling. And acquiring the lands could prove extremely costly to the states if they ever had to bear the full costs of fighting wildfires (a tab the federal government currently picks up). It's notable that even conservative Arizona rejected a similar ballot initiative by a 2-1 vote in 2012.
So is there any way to defuse tensions around federal lands?
-- The Oregonian continues to have the best reporting on the Oregon militia stand-off.
-- Last year in Harper's, Christopher Ketcham explored the corporate-back push to revert federal lands to the states, a push he called "The Great Republican Land Heist"
-- High Country News' investigation into threats and violence against federal employees in the West is worth reading, as is this forum they hosted asking experts for their thoughts on the roots of this conflict.