This Land is My LandNeil and Catherine Thagard


“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to New York island.”

You know the rest. The original wording to the immortal public lands anthem continues “As I went walking I saw a sign there, and on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing.’ But on the other side it didn't say nothing, that side was made for you and me.”

Today, nearly 75 years after those prophetic words were penned, one of the greatest threats facing sportsmen is the radical push to transfer millions of acres of Western federal public lands to state ownership. In Utah, the epicenter of the current effort, a bill that would accomplish this was originally known as the “Disposal and Taxation of Public Lands Act.”However, not just in Utah but across the West, people are talking about “federal land transfer” and “land divestiture.”These phrases might be more palatable to folks outside of the Beehive State, but they have the same ultimate meaning.

Regardless of what you call it, sportsmen who use public lands may soon be seeing a lot more “no trespassing” signs in the places where we go to hunt and fish. We should be alarmed that so many of our elected officials – from congressional delegates down the line to county commissioners – are jumping on the divestiture bandwagon. With the prevailing “anti-fed” sentiment across much of the West, this position may seem like a good short-term strategy for securing votes, but it’s a bad deal for any public land user, especially hunters and anglers.

Supporters of divestiture are proudly dubbing this effort the New Sagebrush Rebellion. Then, as now, legislators demanding a “return” of federal lands to the states claim to be acting upon their constituents’ desire for independence from federal control. However, when the Sagebrush movement reached its height at the end of the 1970s, Bruce Babbitt, then governor of Arizona (who later became secretary of the Interior), concluded that “behind the mask, the Sagebrush crowd is really nothing but a special-interest group whose real goal is to get public lands into private ownership.” Land-grabbing, Babbitt said, was “the oldest con game in the West.”

Three and a half decades later, nothing has changed. The cold, hard, economic fact is that individual states do not have the resources to manage these additional lands. Items such as fire suppression and habitat restoration, invasive species control and road maintenance cost millions year after year. Fire prevention efforts alone are very expensive, with treatments such as thinning estimated at $1,200 per acre. In 2011 and 2012, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $240 million fighting fires in New Mexico alone. The cost to manage Montana’s 30 million acres of federal public lands averages about $340 million annually.

Sportsmen and -women need to be asking the hard question: What happens to the land once transferred if the states cannot afford to manage them? Do we sell them off to the highest bidder? Establish the Old World rules of the “king’s land and king’s deer”? The current agenda to transfer federal public lands is a thinly veiled, slippery and dangerous slope to the privatization of our wildlife and wild places.

It is telling that the model legislation for the land transfer efforts introduced in Utah was, according to a recent op-ed by Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, “drafted with the help of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which receives financing from the utility industry and fossil-fuel producers.” He calls the effort a “land grab scheme” that would “devastate outdoor traditions like hunting, camping and fishing that are among the pillars of Western culture and a thriving outdoor recreation economy.”

David Garbett, a Utah lawyer, explains, “The only way the Utah legislature can generate money from the public lands is to ramp up development and hold a fire sale to clear inventory. That means that the places the public has come to know and love will be sold to the highest bidder and barricaded with ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”

Rep. Ken Ivory of Utah does not dispute these claims. “For 200 years, from 1780 until Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Congress recognized that its duty was to dispose of public lands. Litigation,” he says – suing the federal government to implement the land-transfer law – “is one avenue we’re considering.”

With all that we stand to lose, it is high time for sportsmen to remind our elected officials that our public lands are not theirs to dispose of for short term financial gain – they are the birthright of all Americans! Let’s ensure the next generation of hunters and anglers can still proudly and truthfully sing:
“This land is your land this land is my land
 From California to the New York island;
 From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
 This land was made for you and me.”