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Report: Little Legal Merit to State Control of Public Lands

The Cape Cod National Seashore is among the 60,000-plus acres of federally-managed public land in Massachusetts. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Cape Cod National Seashore is among the 60,000-plus acres of federally-managed public land in Massachusetts. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
October 5, 2016

BOSTON – The armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year took place thousands of miles from New England, but the issues it raised could put all public land at risk.

Anti-government activists, including some state and federal lawmakers, maintain the U.S. is obligated to transfer public lands to the states.

John Leshy, emeritus professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, counters these arguments have little legal merit, as shown in a new report from the Conference of Western Attorneys General.

"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 AGs basically agree and issue this report that's saying, 'Yes, there really is not anything to these claims.'"

Federally managed public lands in the Commonwealth include National Park Service units, historic sites and wilderness and recreation areas.

And currently in the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Chatham on Cape Cod are at odds over ownership of the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

Jack Clarke, director of public policy with Massachusetts Audubon, says New Englanders rely on congressional leaders to protect the federal lands, which are part of the country's heritage.

"These are treasures held in trust for all the people of the United States, not for a state, not for a county and not for a town,” he stresses. “The cherished resources that reflect national values are critical and it's so important that our national government hold on to these resources for generations to come."

And Clarke notes public lands contribute to the $10 billion spent annually on outdoor recreation in Massachusetts, both by out-of-state visitors and residents.

"Many working people in New England can't always afford a vacation in Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley,” he points out. “So, we value places like the Cape Cod National Seashore and the nearby White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine."

Just last week, lawmakers in New Hampshire failed to override the governor's veto of a bill that would have restricted the ability of landowners to sell or donate their land to the federal government.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - MA