By Jessica Goad
February 11, 2014
At its Winter Meeting in late January, the Republican National Committee, the primary organizing and fundraising arm of the Republican Party, passed a series of resolutions, including one endorsing a “pro-life strategy” and another calling on members of Congress and Governors to “explain…burdensome federal regulations” to the public.
But in a surprising move for a party that is struggling to restore its appeal to moderate voters, the RNC also endorsed a fringe, right-wing campaign by some local officials to seize federal lands, turn them over to Western states, and further expand mining and drilling. The RNC resolved that:
[It] calls upon the federal government to honor to all willing western states the same statehood promise to transfer title to the public lands that it honored with all states east of Colorado; and …calls upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the imminent transfer of public lands to all willing western states for the benefit of these western states and for the nation as a whole.
The RNC’s resolution follows the re-emergence of the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the late 1970s that swept the western United States in a wave of anti-government fervor. Today, a small group of local officials and state legislators are reviving this effort. In March 2012, for example, Governor Gary Herbert of Utah (R) signed a bill demanding that the U.S. Congress turn federal public lands over to the state by 2015, or the state will sue (legislators have appropriated $3 million of taxpayer money to fight this legal battle). Similar efforts are underway in Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, and other states.
Although the RNC’s resolution presents thoroughly debunked constitutional arguments to justify the seizure of federal lands, the real goal of the effort appears to be to dramatically expand drilling and mining of fossil fuels on federal lands — but without federal environmental protections and with profits going exclusively to corporations and states, rather than federal taxpayers.
There is ample evidence that control of fossil fuel reserves is the real purpose of the land seizure movement. The RNC’s resolution, for example, says that the federal government takes “10 times longer to approve energy development permits than states” and that “that there is more than $150 trillion in mineral value locked up in federally controlled land.”
Additionally, the website of the American Lands Council, run by Utah state representative Ken Ivory (R), states explicitly on its front page that “More oil than Saudi Arabia…and the rest of the world combined locked up in federal lands — locking up jobs, economic growth and opportunity not only in the west but throughout the nation!”
These state efforts can be traced to corporate front groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has drafted model legislation for states eager to engage in such efforts. Additionally, Americans for Prosperity — funded by Koch money — has promoted the issue.
Many legal scholars believes state land seizure movements are constitutionally indefensible, because when states entered the Union, the federal government assumed the rights over federal public lands. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution “gives Congress authority over federal property generally, and the Supreme Court has described Congress’s power to legislate under this Clause as ‘without limitation.’” And, Utah’s own Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, said that Utah’s legislation had “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”
John Leshy, a legal scholar who was the Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior under President Clinton, noted that “Legally, it’s a ridiculous claim. It would be thrown out in federal court in five seconds…[and] is all just about cranky, symbolic politics.”
Notwithstanding the RNC’s endorsement, land seizure movements in the West run counter to the feelings of Western voters. In fact, only 30 percent of respondents in a poll last year believed that “too much public land” was a serious problem. And 71 percent of Westerners oppose selling-off public lands to corporations for development.