Land Grab: Utah Takes on the Federal Government

On Friday, March 23, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law a bill demanding that the federal government return about 30 million acres of public lands by 2015.  This is a serious issue for western states, who in some cases have 30%-65% of their land in federal hands.

Map from Investors.com

Federally owned lands date back to the nation’s foundation.  The lands of the Northwestern Territories were conceded to the federal government as a stepping stone towards statehood.  The federal government was in charge of surveying the land and selling it to pioneers.  Once enough pioneers moved in, a new state would be formed and admitted into the union.  The federal government was meant as an intermediary.  It was not supposed to own the land in perpetuity.  However, with the dawn of the Progressive Movement, more and more empty lands started being claimed by the federal government, to the point that 65% of Utah is held by different federal agencies.

The federal government retaining control of two-thirds of our land mass was never in the bargain when we became a state, and it is indefensible 116 years later. – Utah Governor Gary Herbert

Western Senators, members of Congress, and Governors have tried throughout the years to reclaim some of the lands on behalf of their states.  The most prominent group of advocates became known as the Sagebrush Rebels.  In 1976, the enactment of the Federal Land Policy Management Act made it clear that these lands would not be returned to the states or transferred to private hands.  Responding to this federal act, the Sagebrush Rebels launched a campaign to reclaim these lands that continues to this day.  While you might not remember the Sagebrush Rebellion, you certainly know its most famous member: President Ronald Reagan.

We’ll see if the state and the federal government can restore the balance of power. The dispute over Western lands is particularly important to the economy because federal lands hold vast stores of energy that are yet untapped:

At the core of the issue in all of the states is limited access to federal land, which hurts energy development, recreation and grazing. There are approximately 28 million acres of federal land in Utah, accounting for about 50 percent of the state. State lawmakers claim the federal lands cost the state millions of dollars every year, although no comprehensive studies have quantified those losses. Associated Press article by Josh Loftin