By Ken Ivory, Director of Free The Lands | Federalism In Action
Nevada currently holds the unenviable record for the highest percentage of federally controlled lands within its borders – more than 80%!
But this is not just a Nevada problem; the federal government controls about half of the all lands within the western states. In contrast, States east of Colorado have, on average, less than 5% federally controlled lands.
But Nevada doesn’t even come close to the all-time record holder for federally controlled lands within a state. This remarkable record was held by that great “western state” of Illinois. During the 19th century, the federal government controlled more than 95% of all lands within the State of Illinois for decades! But, it wasn’t just Illinois. The federal government also controlled for decades as much as 90% of all lands between Indiana and Florida.
How did Illinois feel about the federal government controlling the vast majority of its lands? It banded together with its neighboring states, refused to take “No” for an answer, and won the first “Sagebrush Rebellion.” Illinois and its neighboring states successfully compelled Congress to transfer title to its lands.
Utah’s 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act (TPLA)—and legislation like it throughout today’s western states—is an effort to follow the lead set by Illinois.
In its 1829 Application to Congress, Illinois detailed the hardships they faced from the overwhelming federal control of their lands. The list of grievances will sound eerily familiar to anyone aware of the plight of today’s western states face due to overwhelming federal control of their lands.
What follows is a summary of some of the successful arguments that Illinois made to compel the transfer of its public lands:
First, Illinois argued that federal control of its lands restricted the ability to improve, protect, and manage its resources, limiting its opportunities to generate revenue on terms of equality with states to their east.
Second, Illinois questioned why it should be deprived of the ability to protect the health, safety and welfare of its people exercised by states to the east.
Third, Illinois contended that it should have the same authority to improve and regulate the growth and progress of its lands within its boundaries “according to its own views of prosperity and happiness” as exercised by states to the east.
Fourth, Illinois insisted that it was unfair for eastern states to be required to subsidize states in the west due to federal control of western lands.
(As important as the economic and health consequences from federal control of their lands were, Illinois viewed the federal government’s violation of its constitutional duty to treat states equally under the law as well as its disregard for Illinois’ statehood enabling act terms as “oppressive” and “involv[ing] considerations of the deepest magnitude, and demand the most serious and enlightened reflection of [Congress],” as the continuing list of grievances outlines.)
Fifth, Illinois was adamant that the statehood enabling act terms were “obligatory upon the parties to it” such that “any act on the part of the [federal] government to delay … would doubtless be an infringement of the compact itself.”
Sixth, Illinois questioned why its citizens should “be subject to the operation of the laws of the United States,” over such matters as land use and planning regulations, which are “confessedly purely municipal, which have no existence in the older States, and which they [the States] alone have the right to pass.”
Seventh, Illinois contended that the exercise of such “extraordinary powers” by the federal government was not consistent with “the rights reserved to the States respectively by the Constitution of the United States” and is not expressly granted anywhere in the statehood enabling act.
Today’s western States face the same hardships and echo these same arguments and echo these same arguments and objections.
Under increasing federal control over western lands, access is increasingly restricted; the health of our public lands and forests is deteriorating; and economic productivity and jobs are being depressed.
For instance, each year western states are forced to look on while their forests, animals, and watersheds go up in smoke at an unprecedented rate due to federal mismanagement. This and other wasteful practices are a problem affecting the whole nation. South Carolina State Representative Alan Clemmons best captured the national sentiment: “We in the East are tired of paying billions of dollars for the federal government to mismanage federally controlled lands in the West.”
The problems in Illinois and in today’s western States have the same roots: Washington, DC’s appetite for power and control, and near total disregard for the real-world consequences upon those whose lives and livelihoods depend upon the wise, long-term stewardship of their lands.
Illinois’ powerful appeals to the self-evident principles of liberty, the right and control of property, and self-government won the day. Congress transferred title to the public lands in Illinois reducing the federal control of its lands from over 95% to less than 2%. Imagine the economic, political, and societal difference we would see if the lands of Illinois were still more than 95% federally controlled.
Illinois maintained that transferring the federal lands was a matter “of highest importance to the state and of the most intense interest to its citizens” due to the fact that “the union at large would be benefited in the same ratio as the new States, [because] their…capacity to contribute towards the common burdens of the whole would be increased.”
Perhaps today’s western states should hire Illinois to make these same winning arguments to today’s federal government to unleash better access, better health, and better productivity for our western public lands for the benefit of the whole nation.
If you are ready to stand behind these successful arguments of Illinois for the transfer of federally controlled lands, Sign the Petition and encourage your State to follow the example of Illinois in the battle for the transfer of public lands to willing western states.
About the author: Ken Ivory is a senior policy fellow with Federalism In Action and the director of FIA’s Free The Lands project. He is the author of many articles and the booklet Where’s the Line? How States Protect the Constitution. Ken was elected to the Utah House of Representatives in November of 2010. He and his wife, Becky are the parents of four children. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenIvoryUT.