Rare op­por­tu­nity

Con­ser­va­tive op­po­nents of the fed­eral govern­ment’s vast hold­ings in the West hope they have an ally in the pres­i­dent-elect, de­spite his mixed sig­nals.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By John Flesher and Brady McCombs

Con­ser­va­tives who have long com­plained about the govern­ment’s con­trol of vast West­ern lands hope they will have a new ally in Don­ald Trump, who has sent mixed sig­nals about how he might man­age land and whether he would re­lin­quish fed­eral author­ity over mil­lions of acres.

The pres­i­dent-elect has pledged to honor Theodore Roo­sevelt’s tra­di­tion of con­ser­va­tion in the West, with its ex­pan­sive deserts, snow-capped mountain ranges and red rock canyons. But he has also said he will “un­leash” en­ergy pro­duc­tion there and has railed against “face­less, name­less bu­reau­crats” in land-man­age­ment agen­cies.

Dozens of de­mands for land han­dovers have sur­faced in West­ern leg­is­la­tures in re­cent years, and more are sure to be of­fered dur­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Those who are cham­pi­oning these is­sues cer­tainly see this as a rare op­por­tu­nity,” said Karla Jones, di­rec­tor of a task force for the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Ex­change Coun­cil, a Wash­ing­ton-based or­ga­ni­za­tion that de­vel­ops bills for con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers.

On Tues­day, Trump of­fered the post of in­te­rior sec­re­tary, the na­tion’s top cus­to­dian of pub­lic lands, to Repub­li­can Rep. Ryan Zinke of Mon­tana. The re­tired Navy SEAL in­sists that he does not fa­vor re­lin­quish­ing fed­eral con­trol of the land. Twelve West­ern states con­tain more than half of the na­tion’s 640 mil­lion acres of fed­eral pub­lic lands. Those lands make up more than 60 per­cent of Alaska, Idaho and Utah.

Re­sent­ment of govern­ment con­trol has sim­mered across the West for decades, oc­ca­sion­ally boil­ing over into show­downs such as the armed takeover of the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife Refuge head­quar­ters in Ore­gon last win­ter. Only a few ex­trem­ists re­sort to such tac­tics. Yet the frus­tra­tion is ev­i­dent in count­less protests, res­o­lu­tions and bills de­mand­ing a greater say for lo­cal res­i­dents or seek­ing the sale of mil­lions of acres to pri­vate buyers.

Many con­ser­va­tives ac­cuse fed­eral man­agers of putting more value on en­dan­gered wildlife than on peo­ple and jobs. Trump’s elec­tion raises hopes for more oil and gas drilling, mining, graz­ing and tim­ber har­vest­ing.

How far the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will go is un­clear. But those who have dreamed of over­throw­ing a sys­tem they con­sider tan­ta­mount to colo­nial­ism say the time is now.

“The found­ing fa­thers, when they drafted the Con­sti­tu­tion, never in­tended for the fed­eral govern­ment to own land like this,” said Kirk Chan­dler, a rancher and county com­mis­sioner from Weiser, Idaho. “It’s sup­posed to be the peo­ple’s land.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and their sup­port­ers in Con­gress are gear­ing up for a fight, say­ing strong fed­eral reg­u­la­tion is needed to pro­tect wa­ter and wildlife habi­tat.

“Any ad­min that tries to re­verse 100-year his­tory of #PublicLands that be­long to ev­ery Amer­i­can is go­ing to have to do it over my dead body,” Sen. Martin Hein­rich tweeted af­ter Trump’s elec­tion. The Demo­crat from New Mex­ico later said cash-strapped states prob­a­bly would sell at least some lands to help cover fire sup­pres­sion and other man­age­ment costs. “No tres­pass­ing” signs would pop up in places where pub­lic ac­cess has been taken for granted, he said, rais­ing the ire of out­door sports en­thu­si­asts.

De­spite their shared pref­er­ence for lo­cal con­trol, ac­tivists do not have a sin­gle plan for ac­com­plish­ing it. Much will de­pend on Trump, who told Field & Stream mag­a­zine in Jan­uary that he op­posed trans­fer­ring fed­eral lands to the states.

“I don’t like the idea be­cause I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is go­ing to do,” Trump said. “I mean, are they go­ing to sell if they get into a lit­tle bit of trou­ble?”

Yet he en­dorsed state con­trol in a guest col­umn for a Ne­vada news­pa­per, a position the Repub­li­can plat­form strongly backs.

Rick Bowmer, The As­so­caited Press

Above is the “Moon­house” in McLoyd Canyon, near Bland­ing, Utah. For con­ser­va­tives who have long be­lieved fed­eral man­agers of Amer­ica’s vast pub­lic lands put more value on en­dan­gered owls than peo­ple and jobs, Don­ald Trump's elec­tion raises hopes for sig­nif­i­cant in­creases in oil and gas drilling, mining, graz­ing, tim­ber har­vest­ing and per­haps even a shift of con­trol to state or lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

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