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.
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.
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.