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The federal government should follow the Constitution and sell its Western lands

‘Time and again [the president] preached cooperation and partnership. . . . And time and again he was the first to ignore his own call,” says the governor of Colorado. Wyoming’s governor complains: “The federal system is badly out of kilter. Federal encroachments on state and local governments are at an all-time high.” The governor of Arizona fumes: “What galls westerners is . . . the federal insistence that it is entitled to act not only as landowners, but also as sovereign.” Adds Colorado’s governor: “[Government bureaucrats] can’t figure out whether they’re landlord or king,” as they “steamroll state agencies, ride roughshod over regional water rights, and destroy environmental laws [in an] arrogant nullification of 200 years of constitutional history.”

These are the impassioned words, not of today’s western governors, but instead of governors from nearly four decades ago, Democrats all, objecting to the policies of President Jimmy Carter. Little wonder California governor Ronald Reagan, in an October 1979 radio address declared, “from the Rockies, across the deserts and all the way to the Pacific, the western states are voicing their angry resentment of a powerful absentee landlord — the Federal government, which has overlaid the West with controls and regulations as irksome as barb wire was in an earlier day.”

A president’s policies are enormously important not only to a western governor but also to the entity that manages the state’s lands and to county commissioners, especially in counties with massive federal land holdings. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls nearly 250 million acres, and the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service, which manages more than 190 million acres, together control land greater than the total size of Alaska; the acreage also exceeds the acreage of the next three largest states (Texas, California, and Montana) and Colorado combined. These lands are managed in accordance with “multiple-use” principles, which means they are to host a variety of activities, including energy and mineral development, logging, grazing, and recreation, to name a few.

Multiple-use was introduced in 1960 in the management of national forests and then extended to BLM lands in 1976. But something happened during the intervening years: the arrival of the environmental movement. Beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act (1969) and continuing through a plethora of other federal laws, Congress dramatically enhanced the power of the “public” to intervene in land-use decision making. For decades the only people interested in such parochial issues as grazing on barren expanses of western land were affected westerners. Now scores of environmental groups that are not affected by federal decisions but are interested anyway have stepped forward as the hyper-engaged public. (There is a difference. As we say out west, a chicken is interested in what you have for breakfast, but a pig is affected.) These groups have their own view of multiple-use, which lean heavily toward limited use, occasionally permitting recreation but usually favoring preservation or non-use. Environmental groups have intervened in land-management decision making, lobbied assiduously for congressional oversight and more restrictive federal laws, and litigated aggressively in…

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 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

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