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Public Lands Ownership? Taxpayers, not States

A push to take ownership of public lands away from the federal government has no legal merit, according to a new report. (
A push to take ownership of public lands away from the federal government has no legal merit, according to a new report. (
October 5, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS – While the fight over public lands and who owns them has largely been played out in Western states, there are plenty of implications for Minnesota.

A report adopted by the Conference of Western Attorneys General shows there is little legal basis for the movement to seize federal lands and transfer them to the states.

Will Jenkins, Upper Great Lakes outreach coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says outdoor recreation is essential to Minnesota's economy – and that means keeping public land accessible.

"It can affect daily life,” he stresses. “It affects family vacations. It affects recreation opportunities.

“And a lot of these public places are the lifeblood of rural communities between hunters, anglers and people going to camp and other recreational purposes. It could be the only thing that brings travelers through certain small towns."

Jenkins maintains any attempt to limit or privatize access to public lands should be opposed.

But some groups and lawmakers have taken the view that the federal government isn't managing the lands for maximum financial return, and that states would do a better job.

John Leshy, emeritus law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, says legislatures across the nation have considered bills to turn public land over to states – and these legal battles end up costing states more money.

"It's not surprising from the standpoint of mainstream legal thought,” he states. “Anybody who knows anything about these issues thinks that these claims are kind of bunk. But it's refreshing to have the Western AG's basically agree and issue this report saying, 'Yes, there really is not anything to these claims.'"

The U.S. Supreme Court has for more than a century said the federal government has full authority to hold public lands.

Leshy says the statements of groups claiming otherwise have no legal merit.

Jenkins says Minnesota's pristine Boundary Waters is a prime example of what's at stake.

"It is a public land we need to pay attention to, as there's proposed sulfite ore copper mines in Ely, just outside of the Boundary Waters that, while it's not a public-land sale, it could have severe and long lasting issues for the Boundary Waters," he points out.

Jenkins urges taxpayers to take more ownership of this issue, and get involved in what happens with their public lands.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MN