WASHINGTON – A majority of Westerners think public lands belong to the nation and should not be put in the hands of states, which they fear might not conserve those lands properly, a new poll claims.
The poll, released Thursday by the Center for American Progress, said that 52 percent of voters in eight Western states would oppose bills to transfer federal lands to the states.
“Privatization schemes would devastate outdoor traditions such as hunting and fishing that are among the pillars of Western culture and a thriving outdoor recreation economy,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., in a statement the center released with the poll results.
In a conference call to release the findings, Heinrich said the costs of states taking over federal land “could bankrupt some states.” States would have to sell some lands to recoup those costs of managing them, he said, taking them away from the public in the process.
But supporters of the movement have argued that giving states the right to manage public lands would actually lead to more revenue for states, through such opportunities as mining and logging operations.
Jim Burling is litigation director for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which supports private property rights. He questioned reliability of the center’s survey.
Based on the survey’s methodology, Burling said it appeared weighted toward suburban residents who visit public lands for recreation, and not toward people who rely on these lands to make a living.
He said that if the question was asked of ranchers, miners and others who have to deal with the federal government over operations on public lands, the poll likely would have had a different result.
“Most people do not have the day-to-day experience of dealing with the government,” said Burling.
The poll did show that 94 percent of those surveyed said they had a positive experience when visiting public lands. The poll was done in eight Southwestern states, but did not include Arizona.
The Arizona Legislature approved a bill in 2012 to transfer public lands to the state, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. In her veto message, Brewer cited several problems with the bill, including a lack of plans for the land, a negative fiscal impact, maintenance costs and the fact that it “appears to be in conflict or not reconcilable” with parts of the U.S. Constitution
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said Thursday that he was not currently aware of any plans to revive the measure, which he called “absolutely illegal and unconstitutional.”
The sponsor of the 2012 legislation, Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, was not available Thursday to comment.
Utah passed its own land-transfer bill in 2012, which gives the federal government until Dec. 31 of this year to hand over public lands in the state.
At this point, the federal government has shown no signs of relinquishing the land. If Utah lawmakers wanted to enforce the law, they would likely have to sue in federal court.
Burling, who has been following this type of legislation for 30 years, doubts that such a suit would go far.
“Quite frankly, if there was a good lawsuit to be brought, it would’ve been brought a long time ago,” he said.
Legal questions aside, Heinrich said there is a more important reason to keep the lands in federal hands.
“These lands belong to all of us, and it is imperative that we keep it that way,” his statement said.