How much federal land is too much? When it comes to the state level, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas believes 50.1 percent is too much. While he recently failed to force the federal government to reduce the size of its holdings, the Republican and other anti-government politicians bear watching, particularly with the coming fall elections.
During the Senate's recent donnybrook over the Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act, a measure that drew amendments like garbage draws flies, Sen. Cruz submitted one that would have prevented the federal government from owning more than half of a state's land mass. If the government's share was above 50 percent, the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture departments would have to identify parcels that could either be transferred to the respective state, or auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Interestingly, just five states -- Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho -- fall into the senator's bracket. We don't know how he settled on 50 percent (in his home state of Texas, just 1.8 percent of the landscape is owned by the U.S. government. Perhaps the amendment should also have called for the state to turn over 48 percent of its land to the federal government. ). Also unclear is who would facilitate the debate between the Interior Department (think national parks, fish and wildlife refuges, and BLM lands) and the Agriculture Department (think national forests) over who would dispose of acreage to reach the 50 percent level, but it likely wouldn't be pretty.
While the Sportsmen's Act failed to clear the Senate, things could change soon if the GOP takes control of the Senate, and retains its majority in the House of Representatives, in the fall elections.
Federal lands are not some surplus inventory to be jettisoned at the whim of a politician. By and large, the landscapes Sen. Cruz is eyeing contribute to our national identity, as Trout Unlimited's Steve Kandell noted in late June, help us manage the country's natural resources as a whole, provide incredible recreational opportunities, and contribute economically to both the states and the federal government.
Lands that once were considered wastelands -- places now known as Yellowstone National Park, for example -- today are revered for their spectacular beauty, and valued for providing wildlife habitat, filtering air and water with their forests, storing water, and, of course, serving our recreational needs. They also are key economic contributors, as the National Park Service touted late last week. Yellowstone, for example, generated nearly $382 million for its surrounding communities in 2013.
National forests provide not only recreation (more than a few ski resorts are on Forest Service lands), but timber, water, grazing lands, and in some cases mining. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges benefit waterfowl and wildlife in general, and offer tremendous recreational outlets, particularly for anglers and bird hunters, great birding, and wildlife watching opportunities in general. In 2011, 90.1 million people headed to wildlife refuges for some form of recreation, and spent $144.7 billion.
BLM lands, along with providing recreational outlets (consider Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah or the nine wilderness areas in Oregon and Washington that the agency manages), also provide energy production, grazing lands, and valuable wildlife habitat.
Now, while an amendment such as Sen. Cruz's most certainly wouldn't prompt the federal government to turn Yellowstone over to the state of Wyoming, (the federal government's holdings in the Cowboy State fall below the 50-percent threshhold, at 48.2 percent, anyway), turmoil could be spawned in Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Idaho. In Alaska, for instance, the National Park Service holdings amount to 52.6 million acres vs. the Forest Service's 21.9 million, the BLM's 72.9 million, and Fish and Wildlife Service's 76.6 million. In Utah, the Park Service lays claim to 2 million acres, which pales in comparision to BLM's 22.8 million acres.
But each of these agencies has its own constituency that likely would rise up to defend its holdings. And, really, would a state want to take over scablands managed by the BLM, or prefer the jewels of the National Park System? Either way, do the states have the resources to assume control and management of these places, or would they in turn auction off these landscapes to the highest bidder, regardless of their intended use?
If the federal government sliced its real estate footprint in those five states, would the lands continue to be managed as they have been? Would corporations swoop in for their resources and block public use? Or would they charge higher fees for public access? And, of course, what if someone else in Congress thought Sen. Cruz's disposal threshhold was too high, that it should be lowered to 25 percent, or 10 percent?
In the end, Americans as a whole would be the losers in this boondoggle. To blithely propose such a land giveaway is terribly shortsighted, incredibly so for someone who aspires to be president.