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Fight Over Control Of Western Lands Heats Up In Congress


There's an old political movement in the American West that appears to be gaining new ground. Its members want to put vast tracts of federal land in the hands of states. One of the movement's leaders is Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop. He controls the top environmental committee in the U.S. House. He's part of a controversial effort to transfer ownership of federal land to states like his. NPR's Kirk Siegler went to Bishop's home district and sent this report.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Travel north on Interstate 15 and eventually the sprawl of Salt Lake starts to give way to cattle pastures, wheat fields and huge amounts of federal land on the slopes of the Wasatch Front.


SIEGLER: You can get a stunning view of the snowcapped peaks from Congressman Bishop's hometown of Brigham City, which is dressed up festively for the holidays.

ROB BISHOP: And right now, we're in what is my office here in Brigham city. But this was the original town hall.

SIEGLER: Bishop hardly looks like the gun-slinging outlaw environmentalists call him. He's a high school teacher of 26 years. He's wearing a sweater vest. He drove over here in a PT Cruiser. And he's got a dry sense of humor that's kind of hard to pick up on at first.

BISHOP: I thought they called me a villain, isn't it?

SIEGLER: Villain, or champion of states' rights, Bishop has for sure stirred the pot in his brief stint as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He let a popular 50-year-old federal conservation program expire, and he's a leader in a group of fellow conservatives who are considering legislation to formally transfer ownership of federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land to states.

BISHOP: The federal government doesn't do as good a job as the states and locals and the tribes do. And it's not because the federal government is malevolent or vicious or incompetent. It's just too damn much land for them to control.

SIEGLER: Roughly two-thirds of all of Utah is federally controlled. But to be clear, these lands are mostly open to all of us at any time. The dispute is over what we can or cannot do once we're on them. Bishop says a state like Utah is in a better position to make those decisions.

BISHOP: The lands that they do claim, they control, and they do control it with a very heavy hand. And no, it's not access-free, and that's one of the problems.

SIEGLER: In some ways, it'd be easy to spin this as an old-fashioned Western - a battle over control, a sagebrush rebellion against D.C. bureaucrats. But a lot of what's really going on here boils down to money. States like Utah want to see more oil and gas drilling and other types of development on all that federal land. The argument is that they'd get more money to pay for things like schools. Matt Anderson is a former staffer of Congressman Bishop's who now directs the Coalition for Self-Government in the West at the Sutherland Institute. It's a free-market think tank.

MATT ANDERSON: There should be much more that's being extracted and much more grazing that's going on. And the federal government can shut it down whenever it wants, which puts our ranchers, as well as our oil and natural gas industry, in a real tight spot.

SIEGLER: A few years ago, Anderson's group helped get a law on the books in Utah that ordered the transfer of federal land to state ownership by the end of 2014. It's so far been ignored, so Utah's Plan B appears to be court. This month, lawmakers voted to move forward with a lawsuit against the federal government over control of 30 million acres of federal land - pretty much everything but the national parks, like Zion and Arches.

ANDERSON: I think it comes down to the idea of self-government and the ideas of which our country was founded on. It's the idea that the people who know and live on the land know it best.

SIEGLER: This argument gets at a frustration you can trace all the way back to statehood in some parts of the rural West. Westerners are fiercely independent, and they're proud of it. But this region's relationship with Washington, D.C., is complicated and at times contradictory. The mountain states are also hugely dependent on federal dollars. At the University of Utah law school, John Ruple questions whether a state like Utah could actually afford to manage all that land on its own.

JOHN RUPLE: At least with respect to Utah, oil and gas is at the heart of the conversation.

SIEGLER: Ruple and his colleagues have published studies lately warning that the state could end up in the red if it were to win control of the land, especially with oil and gas prices as low as they are. Ruple also doesn't think Utah would have much success suing the federal government.

RUPLE: The frustration with the state of public land management is a political issue, and that needs to be resolved through Congress and through political means.


SIEGLER: Opponents of Utah's land battle worry that these places in question could be sold and made private. In Brigham City, I asked Congressman Bishop if there was any guarantee that the land here would stay public and open to the public if his state wins.

BISHOP: There are a lot of groups who don't want to see any change in the status quo, who are using that as a fear factor. If you give these lands over to the state, they'll just sell it - they'll privatize everything. That's a silly argument. It's a - (laughter) - let's keep - it's a silly argument.

SIEGLER: Bishop told me that Utah is a public land state and will always be one. He just wants to start a conversation about how the land could be better managed for everyone. Even if Utah's chances really are slim, the conversation definitely has started. And there are still a lot of questions - what about wildfires, which the federal government mostly pays to fight? What about the ski resorts that operate on federally-leased land? And just a few miles from the congressman's office, even, at the northern tip of the Great Salt Lake, there's a huge federal wildlife refuge.

PETE IDSTROM: See where the old lake bed is? Just underneath that B? So that's the level chuckers like to be at a lot, and so they live up in the hills. In fact, they're in those hills right there.

SIEGLER: Pete Idstrom considers this, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, prime hunting ground. He told me it's his favorite place to shoot chuckers and other birds as they fly south for the winter.

IDSTROM: I don't think that the state ever owned this property, and I think that the land belongs to everybody in the country - all Americans. And so I think it's wrong for a few Utahans to think that they should be able to take back which really was never theirs anyway.

SIEGLER: But Idstrom had more pressing matters at hand. He was walking through the frozen sagebrush scouting out a hunt. He and his teenage son planned to be back in the morning at first light. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.