KINGMAN - The federal government has broken the contract it signed with the western states to either pay for or give the public land it held to those states when they were accepted into the union, by holding onto and limiting the use of the land, said Ken Ivory, the president of the American Lands Council at a town hall meeting Friday evening.
Ivory said he first started investigating the use of federal lands in Utah shortly after he was elected to the Utah Senate.
"I wanted to know how badly dependent my state was on federal money," he said.
It turns out that Utah gets 45 percent of its revenues from the federal government. Arizona gets 52 percent of its revenue from the federal government.
Most of that money comes from payments the federal government gives to Utah in lieu of property taxes or the state's share of proceeds from the use of federal lands in Utah, he said.
According a March 2012 New York Times article, the federal government owns approximately 48 percent of the land in Arizona and 57 percent of the land in Utah.
But the federal government, which is trillions of dollars in debt, isn't using those lands to the best benefit of the citizens of the U.S. or the western states, he said. By holding onto the land it is taking away revenue states could generate by selling the land, royalties from the use of the land's resources and revenues generated by taxes. Those revenues are desperately needed in this economy to fund schools, create jobs and support other government services.
"We can't afford not to manage our public lands," Ivory said.
One percent of Nebraska
The federal government owns one percent of the land in Nebraska and 81 percent of the land in Nevada, Ivory said. The statehood charters for Nevada and Nebraska were written one month apart in 1864 and contain nearly the same language. The federal government was to hold the land in trust until a state was formed and then transfer title of the land to the newly created state.
In fact, nearly all of the states west of the Appalachian Mountains have similar clauses in their statehood charters, but the federal government still controls the majority of public land in the states west of Nebraska, he said.
"Why the difference?" Ivory asked.
Ivory said he's been given a number of reasons from a variety of sources, including a former U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judge and a legal professor.
The some of reasons he's been given were: "it's because your land is arid/rugged," "it says in the statehood charter that the federal government is the exclusive manager of the land," "you gave up the land when you became a state," and "you didn't want the land."
"These are the arguments we've tolerated because we haven't asked why," Ivory said.
The requirement that the federal government transfer public lands to the states goes back to the Revolutionary War, he said.
The original colonies were running out of money to fund the war, Ivory said.
Six of the colonies had been granted claims over the western lands. Those colonies wanted to sell the land in order to fund their share of the war, he said. The other seven colonies, which did not have claims to western lands, objected, saying they would have to raise taxes in order to fund their share of the war. Raising taxes would cause people to move out of their territory and into the colonies with lower taxes.
The Continental Congress asked the six colonies with land claims to sell the claims to it, he said. The congress would then hold the land in trust, sell it to fund the war and create new states.
The federal government was never supposed to hold on to the land, Ivory said. As proof, he pointed to language in the original agreement between the colonies and the Continental Congress, several court cases, the documents accepting each state into the union and the Northwest Ordinance, which created the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Reneging on land policy
It wasn't until the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, that the federal government declared that its new "policy" was to hang on to the federal lands and in exchange it would give states a regular payment in lieu of property taxes (PILT) and a share in the proceeds from the sale of resources harvested from the land.
But the federal government has reneged on that "policy" as well, Ivory said. Federal budget cuts due to sequestration have slashed PILT and resource payments to states.
The federal government has also closed access for grazing, recreation, mining, hunting and lumber to many federal lands, further reducing the amount of money states get and the number of jobs created.
The western states need to stand together and fight to get their lands back, Ivory said.
Other states have fought to get their public land back and won.
In 1828, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida banded together and demanded that the federal government give them their public lands and won, he said. In 1953, Hawaii waged a similar battle and won.
Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Nevada have already passed legislation petitioning the federal government to transfer its public land to the states, Ivory said. The Arizona Legislature attempted to pass a similar bill in 2012, but Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it.
Residents need to gather support from local organizations such as chambers of commerce, school districts and social organizations, he said. They need to question their local government officials about what they're doing to get the land back.
The states' have to build enough support to compel Congress to turn over these lands, he said.
For more information on the American Lands Council, visit www.AmericanLandsCouncil.org.
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