So far this year, 36 bills have been introduced in 11 western states aimed at wresting control of public lands from the federal government and turning management over to state legislatures, according to recent tally by a conservation group.
But a report released Tuesday said states are not prepared to administer public lands within their boundaries, adding that the bills are largely supported by a handful of state lawmakers with anti-government ideologies and do not have widespread public support.
The report, "Going to Extremes: The Anti-Government Extremism Behind the Growing Movement to Seize America's Public Lands," was issued by the Center for Western Priorities, which identifies itself as a nonpartisan land conservation policy organization. The group characterized the recent spate of bills as "advocating a wholesale grab" of federal lands.
"Legislation proposed in these states would mean the most far-reaching change to public land management in recent memory," said Jessica Goad, advocacy director of Center for Western Lands. "The public has a right to know who is behind this movement and the consequences of what would happen if their aims were ever achieved."
According to the report, a bipartisan team representing Democratic and GOP polling groups found last year that 52% of voters in western states oppose state government taking control of managing public lands. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP polling group, and FM3, a Democratic group, found that 71% of western voters believe that public lands belong to all Americans, not just residents of a particular state.
Nevada state Rep. Michele Fiore, who this year introduced a bill for her state to take control of 85% of Nevada now being administered by Washington, balked at those conclusions.
"Any poll can be skewed to the agenda of what the pollsters want them to prove," she said. "That most Americans think that the federal government should own our land is simply not correct."
The report is the latest volley in an often bitter battle across the West in which many states insist they can do a better job taking care of vast swaths of public land than bureaucrats in far-off Washington.
Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, an outspoken critic of federal intervention in public lands, labeled claims made in the report "patently ridiculous."
"It's actually laughable," he said. "We have worked through the legislative and education processes and will soon enter the legal process with the federal government on this issue. If that's extremism, we simply do not have the structures of government engineered for by the founding fathers."
Of three dozen bills proposed in 11 states, six measures passed in states including Nevada, Utah and Montana mandate further studies of state-led land management. No state has yet voted to seize federal lands within its boundaries.
The Center for Western Priorities report says most states are ill-equipped to manage public lands. "If the states took control of these lands, one can envision a scenario in which they would have to sell off those lands to pay for the costs," Goad said.
Ivory called the report "fear-mongering."
He said public lands under state control would be less susceptible to mining and fracking. "People who are closer to any natural resource make better decisions than those thousands of miles away," he said.