The Moral Case for Transfer of Public Lands
By Marjorie Haun
In 2014, a juvenile black bear living on National Forest land in Washington State sustained extreme burns to her paws in a forest fire. This little bear, who would gain world renown, was found crawling on her elbows out of the massive Carlton Complex wildfire on U.S. Forest Service-managed land. Later named “Cinder,” this malnourished and horribly burned young bear was rescued and rehabilitated by wildlife officials and volunteers. After months of medical care and physical rehabilitation, Cinder was released in June of 2015 into the federally-managed Black Bear Rehabilitation Center near Boise, Idaho.
Cinder was the lucky one. Millions of animals of all kinds, including privately-owned livestock, have been burned and killed in massive wildfires on federal lands in recent years. With forests overgrown and piling up with underbrush and dead and dying trees, some would argue that releasing Cinder into a federally-managed preserve carries a degree of future risk to this tough little bear. Federal “no-logging” policies, it seems, are turning America’s national forests into kindling.
There are a growing number of state organizations seeking to remedy what they consider negligent policies and shoddy oversight on the parts of federal agencies. Under the umbrella “Transfer of Public Lands” (TPL), this movement offers a solution to the problem of poor federal management which is simple in concept; transfer ownership and management of public lands currently administered by federal agencies, to equivalent state agencies which, being accountable to governors, state legislators, and citizens, will handle management of public lands in a more conscientious and cost-effective way. According to this report by the Property and Environment Research Center, federal management results in a net loss of revenue, while public lands managed by the states produce a net gain.
Unlike states east of the Continental Divide, western states, such as Washington and Idaho, are predominantly owned by the Federal Government, and under the management of the Interior Department and its plethora of agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Fish & Wildlife, and others. The BLM map below illustrates the imbalance between west and east when it comes to federal control.
Utah is at the forefront of the Transfer of Public Lands movement. In 2012 the Utah State Legislature passed the “Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study.” Signed into law by Governor Herbert, the law provides Utah the basis for transferring those public lands now managed by federal agencies into State ownership. National Parks, Monuments, Tribal Lands, and Defense Department lands are excluded in the transfer. The American Lands Council (ALC) has been tireless in making the legal and moral case for transferring western public lands to the states. “Public lands stay public,” says Ken Ivory, spokesman for the American Lands Council, “and our national treasures will be well protected and preserved.”
In October, the L.A. Times published an article, “Control of federal lands emerges as an issue in the GOP presidential race.” According to the report, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum have all expressed support for devolving federal jurisdiction to the western states.
But as the American Lands Council, and a growing number of political leaders, are making a good case for the transfer of public lands, bungling, overreach and overreactions by the Federal Government may be making the strongest case of all. It’s not just little black bears burned in a forest fire that suffer.
In November of 2008, Rose Backhaus, a 54 year-old Colorado woman, was hiking in Utah’s BLM-managed, Little Wild Horse and became lost in the canyon when she took a wrong turn on the trail. She likely wandered for days, eventually succumbing to exposure. Her body was found by hikers the following April. The local BLM office had received requests from locals for years to place a sign in the canyon directing hikers to the proper trail, but the federal agency failed to act, claiming a sign would be too expensive and would have an adverse impact on the “wilderness experience.”
More recently, a woman in Josephine County, Oregon feared for her life as her ex-boyfriend was breaking into her home. She called 911 and was told there was no one available to help her. The local sheriff’s office, lacking the resources to pay deputies and staff, failed to respond to the woman’s pleas. Although the dispatcher remained on the phone with the woman, the intruder later sexually assaulted her. Josephine County, Oregon was built on the logging industry, but when the federal government began to implement policies to “protect habitats” for threatened or endangered species in the northwest, the timber industry imploded, and federal timber funds dried up. Broke and beleaguered, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office experienced first-hand the economic effects of misguided federal policies.
A September 2014 L.A. Times story titled, A Sting in the Desert, recounts a case of massive overreaction by the BLM in Southeastern Utah. A respected family man, civic leader, and local physician named Jim Redd, was under scrutiny by BLM agents and the FBI for allegedly looting nearby Native American archaeological sites and trading artifacts on the “black market.” A paid undercover informant named Ted Gardiner, working for the BLM and FBI and equipped with a “button” surveillance camera, spent hundreds of hours in Redd’s home, perusing the artifacts his family had collected for generations. Gardiner was seeking evidence that would link Redd to the illegal antiquities trade. Eventually Mrs. Redd gave in to Gardiner and bargained with him for pair of yucca sandals. With the cash trade supplying them the evidence they wanted, the BLM and FBI launched a massive raid on the Redd home. Dozens of armed agents dressed in body armor arrived in a convoy of SUVs and arrested 60-year-old Jim Redd at gunpoint, handcuffed him, and marched him into his garage where they taunted and interrogated him for hours. Redd and his wife were charged with numerous felony counts and both faced decades in federal prison. The day following the raid, Dr. Jim Redd took his own life. Following Dr. Redd’s suicide, the informant in the case, Ted Gardiner, shot and killed himself, according to witnesses, due to irreconcilable remorse over the raid that lead to Dr. Redd’s death.
Considering this complex and strange account, one naturally asks, even if Redd was guilty, why did these federal agencies react with such massive force to raid the home of a beloved small town doctor who had no history of violence?
Two Oregon ranchers were recently sentenced to 5 years in federal prison under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act for setting prescriptive fires on their own ranch. The fires spread and accidently burned 140 of BLM-managed property. One former U.S. Forest Service agent who testified in behalf of the Hammonds said, “The Hammond family is not arsonists. They are number one, top notch. They know their land management.” The prosecution of a law-abiding ranching family under Antiterrorism law is another disquieting example of federal overreaction to a relatively minor crime.
But, at times, federal management decisions simply defy reason.
Earlier this summer, while massive wildfires shot across regions of Montana, the U.S. Forest Service, under the direction of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, restricted Montana from using its fleet of helicopters in fire suppression efforts. Montana Governor Bullock declared a state of emergency and authorized the National Guard to use its resources to aid fire-fighting efforts, but under federal management, the state’s firefighting fleet of Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters remained grounded as wildfires raged.
Citizens and leaders in the West are understandably frustrated and angry with the federal government and its agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) devastating—and totally preventable–spill of millions of gallons of toxic mine waste into Colorado’s Animas River in August, made national news, and was to many, illustrative of the need for local and state control over management of resources, and preservation of the environment.
Ken Ivory of ALC describes the problem this way, “The one-size-fits-all bureaucratic ‘solution’ is really the problem. Wildfires resulting from overgrown and diseased forests in the West burn millions of acres every year. We all want clean air, water, healthy habitats for wildlife, and vibrant sustainable communities with abundant recreational opportunities. But we’ve been told for decades that in order to have those things our precious natural resources need to be managed by federal bureaucrats thousands of miles away.”
As the legal wrangling over TPL plays out, the more critical moral case for state control of public lands is being made by a growing list of federal debacles, injustices, waste and abuse. And within each instance of federal mismanagement are countless stories of human suffering and environmental degradation.
By Marjorie Haun 2/10/16