Be careful what you wish for

Utah lawmakers recently passed legislation establishing a fund for what could potentially be a $14 million lawsuit to seize control of federal lands in the state. This is one of the biggest actions to date in a series of skirmishes throughout the West involving a burgeoning movement to transfer Federal lands to the states.

As much as I think that the Feds sometimes exhibit overreach in their stewardship of public lands I believe this to be a misguided effort. As much as many of us may not like the current state of Federal land management it’s extremely difficult for me to imagine a scenario where state takeover would make any of that better or provide a benefit most of us – especially those of us who prize public land for recreational purposes. This is a case, if ever there was one, for being careful what you wish for.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many rational players in the recreation community who deem state takeovers of Federal lands to be a good idea. States are bound by things like limited budgets (and the need to keep those limited budgets balanced) that would seriously impede their ability to adequately manage swaths of land suddenly dumped into their laps.

The Federal government has, for all intents and purposes, unlimited resources when it comes to regulation enforcement and participation in the legal system. Because of that a kind of status quo exists that’s not entirely bad.

As much as any of us may not like it, the same inertia that makes it difficult for the recreational community to initiate sweeping changes in management practices on Federal lands beneficial to us makes it similarly difficult for those who favor restrictions on access. This détente between opposing forces is, again, facilitated by the sheer size and bulk of the juggernaut that is the Federal Government. The Queen Mary doesn’t exactly turn on a dime. When you’re traversing the edge of a waterfall there might be some benefit to that.

Now consider a state or locality with far more limited resources than the Federal government attempting to defend a spate of well-funded lawsuits or other challenges brought about by interests antagonistic to recreational access. Most states would be forced to deal with such a barrage of litigation by settling on terms that many of us might find objectionable. My own hunch is that a lot of public land would quickly cease to become public in the sense that we perceive it now.

Public land in this country is our birthright. We’ve never had a noble class carving up prized natural resources exclusively for their own benefit. There is a lot of it and there exists out there somewhere a place where you can go and have as much fun as you can handle. Public land belongs to all of us, and a few twists and turns aside it’s a pretty good deal for everyone. As far as I’m concerned all of that is a source of considerable pride and something I’m not eager to surrender without a fight.

We simply have a much better chance of protecting our interests in public lands if they continue to be managed by the Federal government. Right now I have a say, albeit a small one, in how riding, climbing and skiing areas are managed all over the country because though I’m a resident of Idaho I’m a citizen of the United States. Because of that I can, through my vote, influence public policy concerning those lands. If those areas are seized or transferred to the states I lose that ability outside of Idaho.

My own hunch is that in many cases state seizures of public lands have little to do with keeping those lands public and everything to do with an eye toward transferring those lands to private interests. While I don’t have as much of a problem with grazing, logging, mining and other private interests on public lands that others might, I think that we are all better off if these activities are managed by agencies with the clout to make sure that things are done right. We need natural resources and as long as they are managed responsibly I’m OK with it. I’m just not so sure that the resources to ensure that they are reside in any individual state.

Award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth is a physicist, writer and motorcyclist who lives in Pocatello.