Whose Land is it?
By Frank Priestley, Idaho Farm Bureau President
Americans, and especially Idahoans, love and cherish public lands. We take it for granted that they will always be there for us to enjoy. Unfortunately, we all are incrementally being shut out of “our” public lands by the federal “managers.”
A few decades ago there was undeniably far more timber harvesting and livestock grazing on federally managed public lands. However, recreation is also being systematically shut down. Nearly everyone who hikes, bikes, camps, hunts or rides motorized vehicles has seen roads closed and areas restricted. The federal agencies are concentrating more people and activities on fewer acres; then imposing additional limitations when their own policies cause greater impacts. Restrictions increase every year.
Federal management is severely curtailing our outdoor opportunities. But what can be done about it? The best remedy would be to reclaim state management of public lands. This is the way it was supposed to work, but the feds have simply taken over where they were not authorized to do so. State management would solve many of the problems we face on public lands today, including burning up thousands of acres annually.
A short history lesson may be helpful. Many of the thirteen original colonies had vast “territories” that they controlled to the west. To pay down the Revolutionary War debt, these new states agreed that they would cede their territories to the federal government for the sole purpose of creating new states that would become part of the new nation. The proceeds from the sale of the land to settlers would be used to pay off the debt.
Later, as the U.S. acquired other territories through the Louisiana Purchase and later acquisitions, the covenant continued. New states that were admitted to the Union disclaimed the title to the “public” lands within their borders to the federal government with the agreement that the land would be disposed of (sold) to new settlers. Under this contract, state relinquishment of title was a legally necessary step; otherwise there would be a clouded title when the land was sold.
This is why our Idaho Constitution states: “the people of the state of Idaho do agree and declare that we forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof . . . and until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be subject to the disposition (sale) of the United States.”
However, we agreed to disclaim title only, not management nor jurisdiction. The federal government never expected to manage the land, just hold the title until the land was disposed of. This promise to dispose of the land was eventually kept with all states east of Colorado, but not with the western states, even though the contract with all states is the same.
Furthermore, the purpose of the US Constitution is to limit the authority of the federal government to specifically enumerated items. Other than for those limited purposes, the federal government is only authorized to exercise jurisdiction over a few specifically mentioned places, such as military bases. All other areas within state boundaries are to be managed under the jurisdiction of the states.
Therefore, since the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from exercising management authority on public lands within states, even if we had agreed to relinquish management or legislative authority over the land, which we didn’t, it would not be valid.
By every measure, the 2.4 million acres of Idaho’s state managed lands are more productive, healthier and better managed than the 32 million acres of federally managed lands. Wouldn’t it be far better for recreation and resource decisions to be made here locally than back in DC by some bureaucrat who has never set foot in Idaho?
Idaho is great in spite of its poorly managed federal “public” lands, not because of them. State management of all public lands in Idaho would not only provide better opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, but would be a tremendous boon to our economy, restoring good paying, resource based jobs. We can have both.
The Idaho Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau both have clear policy supporting the states’ right to manage the public lands within their borders. As Utah and other western states work to reclaim state management of their public lands, Idaho must strongly support these efforts. “Our” public lands are not truly ours until we reclaim our right to manage the public lands within our borders.