How Much Land Do The Feds Own In The West?

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Federal control over vast tracts of Western states has become an issue in the 2016 presidential race.

The Daily Caller News Foundation sat down with Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government  and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, Tuesday to learn just how much land the government owns and how it is being managed.

The federal government owns 85 percent of Nevada, 52 percent of Oregon, 45 percent of California, 69 percent of Alaska and 57 percent of Utah.

“When so much of a state is controlled by the federal government it affects the ability of local communities to control their economic destiny,” said Sgamma. Economists at Utah State University estimate the federal control of so much land costs state economics billions annually.

Disputes over how this land is managed have been a major force in the politics of the Western states since at least 1900. Green activists can and have even prevented the development of federal land.

Close to half of the Western United States is owned by the federal government through agencies such as the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM), causing tensions with local residents and state governments. These tensions have increased as federal agencies started enforcing strict environmental regulations and limiting permits for energy development, ranching and other economic activities which the west depends on.

With vast portions of the American West in federal hands, private landowners often find themselves at the mercy of a government that frequently expands its holdings and power at their expense. The government also appears set on increasing the amount of land it owns. The National Parks Service for example has spent billions to add 18 new units to the national parks system since 2009.

“Most of the vast federal lands in Nevada and other western states are not national park quality lands, but rather lands that are appropriate for energy development, mining, ranching and other productive activities,” Sgamma continued. “Since the administration is determined to regulate these activities out of existence, the result is lost jobs and economic stagnation in rural communities with large proportions of public lands.”

The federal government is incredibly slow to approve development on the land it manages. Simply getting the BLM to approve a drilling permit took an average of 307 days in 2013. Getting a similar permit from a state government took between 12 and 15 days. Data from the Energy Information Administration shows that coal, gas and oil production on federal lands has fallen 15.5 percent since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

Calls to return federal land to state government management are nearly constant, particularly from ranchers, and the legal case for doing so is strong. At the beginning of statehood, the federal government promised all states would be given public lands within their borders. The U.S. Supreme Court has called these promises “solemn compacts,” “bilateral (two-way) agreements,” and “solemn trusts” that must be performed “in a timely fashion.”

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