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But not everyone has that much faith in the ability of Western states to responsibly manage public land. “We have a lot of concerns about what it would look like to turn our public lands over to the states,” said Jessica Goad, the advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities. “Would they still be public? What restrictions would the states put on them?”
Goad said that in addition to concerns about the quality of environmental protections the states would enforce, strained state budgets could also pose a threat to the preservation of wilderness.
“We would worry that in order to make that money, they would put some pretty important places up for mining or drilling or maybe sell them off to the highest bidder,” she explained.
Goad added that, for the most part, she’s happy with the way federal agencies have managed the country’s public land.
“There’s no philosophical reason to say that states would do a better job managing public lands, or necessarily a worse job, but they would certainly do a different job,” said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State University. “There would be different winners and losers if that were to happen.”
He explained that the reason so much of the West is under federal management has a lot to do with how the states were admitted into the Union at the turn of the 20th century. During that process, many signed the rights to their public lands over to the federal government.
“There are many reasons to celebrate those federal lands,” said Freemuth, “and there are other reasons folks have to bemoan that situation.”
In the early 20th century, much of the country’s federally managed land was used for resource extraction, like timber harvesting, grazing, and oil and gas production. But then, explained Freemuth, as time went by, public sentiment began to shift toward conservation and land protection, values that threatened the Mountain West economies that depended on those industries.
“Folks out here, some of them feel like their economies have suffered, the jobs have gone away and too much land is protected,” he said.
Freemuth added that while the argument to transfer federal public land to the states had seen significant national attention lately, the level of actual public support for the movement is unclear; he cited the overwhelming defeat of Arizona’s Proposition 120 in 2012. The proposed amendment to the state Constitution demanded that all federal lands, including the Grand Canyon, be turned over to state or private ownership.
Despite some tense moments, the protest in Blanding ended peacefully on Saturday. And while Lyman said he understands the need to protect cultural resources, the local government should have been more involved in the decision to close the trail in Recapture Canyon.
“With free people, you come and you talk to them, and you make a decision with the local governing officials, which is the county,” he said.
A BLM-sponsored damage assessment in the area is currently underway and could result in the prosecution of several protesters.
According to BLM officials, the community’s application to restore ATV traffic through the canyon is still under review, pending the completion of an environmental assessment. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.