Written by Eliza Carter

Public land seizure has been making headlines in Colorado and across the West for years now, and lots of us aren’t quite sure what to make of it. This confusion is understandable; the logic behind the movement is not particularly coherent and there are a lot of different influences at play. Terms and names are often dropped, and their relationship to one another is not always clear — what or who is ALEC? What is ALC? What does this have to do with Cliven Bundy?

And last but not least, how exactly would this idea work?

We intend to clear all this up for you.

What is public land seizure?

Short answer: Nonsense.

Long answer: Public land seizure is essentially the idea that land currently managed by national agencies should be owned by the state. The legal validity, financial prudence, and feasibility of this argument have all been debunked several times over, and yet it persists. It stems from ideological values that resemble those of Cliven Bundy, the law-breaking Nevada rancher who made headlines last year for engaging in an armed standoff with BLM officials because he didn’t want to pay grazing fees. His basis for this was simply that he doesn’t believe that the American government is legitimate.

We’ve seen this before — in the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ranchers rebelled against the federal government because of grazing fees that they felt were too high, despite the fact that they are usually a fraction of the average private leasing cost.

If this reasoning seems bizarre, that’s because it is. The real reason for these efforts is not a principled stand against federal overreach, it’s a thinly veiled push to privatize and profit off our land, mostly through extractive industries.

Yeah, but there must be some grounds on which people are arguing for it.

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: There is an argument, but it disintegrates under even the lightest scrutiny. Proponents say that, in Western states’ enabling acts or constitutions, the federal government promised to give the land back to the states. A quick glance at any enabling act proves this is just not true. For example, here’s Colorado’s:

“That the people inhabiting said Territory do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said Territory.”

Seems pretty straightforward.

So how would it work?

Short answer: It wouldn’t.

Long answer: Public lands require a great deal of costly management, which would be an enormous burden for cash-strapped state governments. As Fort Lewis College Professor Andrew Gulliford recently detailed, the Utah government spent $450,000 to discover that seizure would cost around $300 million. That price tag, which is currently handled by the federal government, would either be placed on state taxpayers, or would have to be generated by dramatically increasing development on our public lands.

Currently, our public lands create a great deal of revenue through our recreation and tourism economies, prompting the outdoor industry to become more active in fighting for public lands. In Colorado alone, recreation generates $13 billion per year in spending.

If the state were to seize public land, it would have to find a way to make up the budget shortfall from the aforementioned staggering cost of management. The most obvious way to do that is to sell it off for private development, which would inevitably lead to access closures and environmental degradation.

Even if the land weren’t immediately sold, simply becoming owned by the state is a serious threat to access; while federal lands are required to be available for multiple uses, state lands must be managed for profit.  So public land seizure would unavoidably result in decreased access to our favorite places to hike, camp, fish, and hunt. Worse, it would rob future generations of those opportunities.

What do ALEC, ALC, and the Koch brothers have to do with this?

Short answer: They’re funding it so they can maximize private profit on our public lands.

Long answer: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been involved in this since the beginning. It is a special interest group that creates “model legislation” for mostly conservative lawmakers, and it is notorious for bringing state legislators together with industry representatives in closed-door sessions. Every public land seizure bill we have seen yet can be traced to ALEC’s unsavory origin. Its corporate advisory board includes fossil fuel groups like ExxonMobil, Altria, and Koch Industries, and has pushed public land seizure bills across the country. Sound like a dangerous combination? It is.

The American Lands Council (ALC) is a similar corporate front group whose guiding mission is to seize control of public lands. It pays state legislators handsomely to push their agenda in state legislatures. ALC’s members, which include county commissions, sheriff’s offices, and individuals across the country, pay fees in return for the opportunity to profit off the land once it has been transferred.

What’s Ahead

Unfortunately, despite the abundance of conclusive evidence that seizing public lands is a terrible idea, we are seeing it continue to rear its ugly head at the state level and in Congress.This year’s legislative session saw several reckless bills that would have furthered the seizure agenda. Luckily, they were ultimately defeated thanks to resounding opposition from Colorado’s businesses and outdoor recreation community as well as our legislative champions’ tireless efforts. Coloradans know this is wrong for us — we just need to make sure our leaders aren’t being swayed by special interests.