home imipono about
facebook flickr youtube twitter


Published: April 17, 1982

go to original

Reagan Administration plan to help reduce the national deficit by selling Federal lands to private bidders threatens to ignite a new controversy over public land policy in the West.

The opposition is likely to come not only from environmentalists but also from ranchers and politicians who so far have enthusiastically supported the President and Interior Secretary James G. Watt.

Although the Administration has not worked out the final details of its proposal, the mere specter of Federal land sales in a region where the Federal Government owns nearly 50 percent of the land has provoked alarm. Those expressing apprehension include ranchers who fear that the Federal land they have used as grazing pasture will be sold to the highest bidder, as well as private real estate speculators and state land managers, who worry that large-scale sales of public land could depress property prices throughout the region.

''This question of privatizing public lands is like taking a big stick and stirring everything up again,'' said Gregg Cawley, a political scientist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He is a specialist in the movement, commonly called the ''sagebrush rebellion,'' that involves Westerners opposed to what they believe is restrictive Federal control over the use of public lands and resources in their region.

''If they press ahead with any large-scale land sales in the West,'' he said, ''it is just going to get the Reagan people embroiled in a whole new debate they can't win, because it's going to unite dyed-in-the-wool sagebrush rebels with environmentalists.''

In an attempt to soothe Western concerns about the land sale proposal, the Department of the Interior on Tuesday issued a fourparagraph statement emphasizing that no decisions had yet been made about ''how much Federal land managed by Interior Department agencies can - and should - be disposed of by sale, and under what conditions.''

''We have heard some early expressions of concern, and they are understandable,'' the statement added. ''However, we want everyone to understand also that this will be a lengthy process that has barely begun. We hope people will not overreact while we are taking inventory.''

The statement also said that certain lands had been excluded from the inventory, including national parks, monuments, historic sites and wildlife refuges, as well as wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and lands set aside to be conveyed to the states, Indian tribes or natives of Alaska.

Not everyone in the region is opposed to the plan. For example, an aide to Senator Paul Laxalt, a Nevada Republican who is a close associate of President Reagan, has described surplus public land as the equivalent of excess capital in business.

So far, the Administration has focused its search on high-value surplus properties in or near urban areas nationwide, as well as on isolated and scattered tracts in the West. These include properties managed by the Defense Department and General Services Administration, as well as the Interior Department.

The Reagan plan calls for raising $1 billion through the sale of such property in the fiscal year 1983 and $4 billion annually each year thereafter. Officials are still working out details of the program, and several questions remain about how it could be carried out.

For one thing, the Administration is now limited in both the amount and the type of land it can sell without specific Congressional approval. Any attempt to circumvent the current statutes will surely result in lawsuits, and efforts to revise the laws, a possibility already discussed within the Administration, could embroil the White House in a heated fight with Congress over larger land policy goals.

In addition, there are questions about whether the land sales program will directly conflict with a program under which the Interior Department has offered to accelerate the exchange or donation of nearly a million acres of public lands sought by local communities and state governments in the West.

Even so, the fact that the President and the Office of Management and Budget have set targets for the amount of revenue they want to raise from land sales has been enough to ignite the fears of Westerners historically sensitive to policy shifts on public lands issues. 'Take a Calculator, Figure It Out'

''All you have to do is take a calculator and figure it out,'' said one Western state land commissioner, who asked not to be identified. ''A lot of grazing land around here is worth no more than $200 an acre, fair market value. If you ask B.L.M. to raise only $2 billion a year, that might be 10 million acres right there.''

Of the 385 million acres of public land in the lower 48 states, 175 million are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and 167 million belong to the Forest Service.

''Nobody knows just what is going on, and that's part of the problem,'' said Mary Pat Wilson, a public lands and resource specialist for the Western Governors Policy Office, which represents the governors of 13 Western states on issues of common regional interest. ''But there is a good sense of fear and concern out here, and it involves a wide variety of interests, from some of the governors to livestock raisers, recreation users, environmentalists and local communities.''

Over the past month, a variety of Federal agencies, including the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department, which administers the Forest Service, have been taking inventory of their public land to identify property that could be sold to private bidders. President Ordered Inventory

The inventory is a result of an executive order, signed by President Reagan on Feb. 25, to survey all Federal property and identify any that is surplus for possible sale. Part of the purpose of the inventory is to develop a definition of surplus land.

According to the Interior Department, a preliminary inventory of Federal property includes about 31,000 acres that belongs to the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. An Interior Department spokesman said the lands included isolated tracts and surplus land outside authorized park boundaries, as well as nonessential lands and research stations in fish hatcheries belonging to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

''I think the Administration would like to see substantial sales of private land in the West,'' said Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado, a Democrat. ''And all of a sudden a lot of people here are having second thoughts about the 'sagebrush rebellion' because turning land over to the private marketplace is going to be much more disruptive than business as usual.''

In a recent speech in Los Angeles, Gov. Lamm said that the public land policies of the Reagan Administration, including plans to accelerate the leasing of Federal lands for mineral development, represented ''more than another swing in the pendulum.''

''It is,'' he said, ''an effort to take the pendulum off the clock.'' Backlash Is Predicted

In a recent interview, another Democratic Governor, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, agreed, arguing that any attempt ''to privatize large areas of the West will result in a real backlash, not only to the President but to the 'sagebrush rebellion'.''

In Montana, where about 30 percent of the land is under Federal control, Gov. Ted Schwinden, who is also a Democrat, said that even the Reagan Administration must be aware that ''any wholesale attempt to dispose of the public domain would cause sort of a reverse version of the 'sagebrush rebellion' throughout the West.''

Mons Teigen, the executive vice president of the Montana Stock Growers Association, said that in principle, he was in favor of putting land into private hands.

''But it's a question of how you get from point A to point Z,'' said Mr. Tiegen. ''If you put land up for sale to the private bidder, it would wreak havoc among all present users of the land because they would be bid out by someone who had more money to invest.''

Cattle raisers throughout the West depend on millions of acres of public land, for which they pay annual grazing fees. At the same time, Wilbur Rehmann, who is director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, has formed an organization called Save Our Public Lands to mobilize opposition to any sale of the lands.

''The recent announcement by the state office of the Bureau of Land Management that they are inventorying public lands for sale should be a warning to everyone who uses the public lands, including grazers,'' said Mr. Rehmann. ''If it's sold to the highest bidder, it won't be to livestock operators, but mineral, coal and oil companies, which are usually one and the same.''

back to documents
©2008 Statehood Hawaii