Cause grabs GOP eye
Stando≠ in Oregon prompts Republicans to revisit federal land use
Republicans have widely condemned the armed standoff by a group of ranchers to reclaim federal land in eastern Oregon, but their goal of taking back some of Washington’s vast holdings in the West has gained traction in the GOP.
The decades-old idea could garner even more momentum should the party recapture the White House this year.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has proposed preventing the federal government from owning more than 50 percent of the land in any state, which would require changes, for example, in Alaska, Nevada and other Western states.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has backed legislation to give states the ability to develop energy resources on federal land and told the Des Moines Register editorial board that “the federal government owns far too much land” in the West.
Both senators backed an amendment offered by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski last year that would make it easier for federal land to be returned to state control.
Meanwhile, an effort to force the federal government to hand over lands to the states has also gained momentum, with the Republican National Committee in 2014 issuing a resolution calling for Western states to reclaim the land. Republican legislatures in states such as Georgia and South Carolina have passed motions backing the concept, and several western states are studying the issue.
“The people on the ground are so exasperated with this lockdown, hands-off management that it’s percolating up,” said Ken Ivory, a Utah state legislator who founded the American Lands Council, which advocates for western states reclaiming their land. “It’s one of those things that’s destined to be.”
But both environmentalists and even some critics of federal control of western lands say politics will keep much of the West firmly under federal control. Many Westerners prize their ability to use federal land to hunt, hike or fish, and more people are moving to the region’s cities and fewer to rural areas where conflict with federal land management is rife.
“It just ignites a firestorm” whenever largescale land transfers are discussed, said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., a longtime critic of federal western land management, whose district includes the wildlife refuge where a handful of armed ranchers have been holed up since last week, refusing to leave until the land is returned to local control.
He noted that President George W. Bush had to backpedal on a plan to sell off surplus western land and argued that, if the GOP captures the White House this year, no large-scale land transfer would pass even a Republican-controlled Congress.
“We’re just outnumbered in the West,” Walden said, adding that Republicans from other regions would not necessarily join with Western ones. “We don’t have the votes.”
The federal government owns nearly 1 million square miles in the West, and for more than a century conflicts between its priorities and those of the people who live there have helped define the region.
Members of the FBI stand guard Sunday at the Burns Municipal Airport in Burns, Ore. A small, armed group has been occupying a remote national wildlife refuge for a week to protest federal land use policies. Photos by Rick Bowmer, The Associated Press
Rancher Jerry Miller, 79, and his daughter Tina Steeves deliver hay to his cattle on his ranch in Crane, Ore. Behind the standoff between ranchers and the U.S. government in Oregon is a decades-old idea in the West to take back control of federal lands.