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Control of Public Lands: Complications Ahead?

PHOTO: Vacation plans on public lands could change dramatically if the push to turn federal lands over to state control succeeds, and there have been moves to do that in both the U.S. House and Senate. Photo credit: Greg Stotelmyer.
PHOTO: Vacation plans on public lands could change dramatically if the push to turn federal lands over to state control succeeds, and there have been moves to do that in both the U.S. House and Senate. Photo credit: Greg Stotelmyer.
May 20, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. - Summer vacation adventures on public lands could change dramatically if the push to turn federal lands over to state control succeeds, and there have been moves to do that in both the U.S. House and Senate.

Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, is issuing the warning and says allowing state control would lock up lands for private development, and other parcels would be sold by states to pay for managing additional land.

"This is a terrible idea that is totally out of sync with the way Americans value our parks, our forests and wildlife refuges," says Williams. "They don't want to see their lands turned over to states and sold to the highest bidder."

Williams says the push to privatize public lands originates with special interests and their allies in Congress, and could bring the biggest changes to lands in the West. Backers of the idea claim the states would be better managers of federal properties, and say there is a legal precedent for state control.

John Leshy is a professor of real property law at the University of California Hastings and former chief counsel of the U.S. Interior Department. He says there's a long history of court decisions affirming the federal government's rights to hold land, and that this type of case would probably be laughed out of court.

"It has nothing to do with the law, it's not a legal claim," says Leshy. "It's all about politics, it's all about stirring up the base, tapping into the anxiety or hatred or whatever you want to call it, that some people have about federal ownership of land in the West."

Williams says the move for state seizure of public lands is overshadowing the urgent need to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund an important program that helps pay for parks, trails, baseball fields and more, in just about every county in the country.

"For 50 years, this program has played an essential role, protecting places people love and getting Americans outdoors," says Williams.

The fund expires at the end of September unless Congress takes action.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY