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Federal lands for sale?

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Stung by a recent vote in Congress, national conservation groups are mustering opposition to the increasing call from many Western states to transfer federal lands to state control.

The U.S. Senate last month narrowly approved a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that could set the stage for future legislation to sell or transfer federal lands to state or local governments.

“This amendment doesn’t sell, transfer, or exchange any piece of property,” Murkowski said in a statement last week. “It provides a general budgetary mechanism that would apply to future legislation. Any actual transfers or exchanges of land would still need to go through the regular order legislative process and be signed into law.”

Murkowski emphasized that her amendment, which passed 51-to-49 with no Democratic support, would exempt lands within national parks, national preserves or national monuments from possible transfer.

In many Western states, the federal government owns the bulk of the land. Some in state governments around the West have yearned for years to bring those millions of acres under state control. They argue that western states are hamstrung compared to their eastern cousins by the relative lack of private lands for development and taxation.

Last week, the Alaska House of Representatives endorsed a measure that would call on the federal government to hand over huge swaths of federal land there. State legislatures in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming have considered similar measures this year. Utah in 2012 passed a state law calling on the federal government to transfer federal lands there into state ownership.

For many conservation groups, the Senate vote narrowly endorsing Murkowski’s amendment means the notion of massive transfers of federal land to the states no longer may be discounted simply as wishful thinking at the state level. Now, they say, they must count it as a serious threat.

John Horning of Santa Fe is executive director of WildEarth Guardians, a group that commonly challenges federal land management agency actions in the West.

“It’s disturbing that a majority of senators think that this idea has legs, that it’s got credibility,” Horning said. “So I was disturbed, and discouraged. And it clearly demonstrates that there’s real momentum behind this movement to privatize public lands.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., spoke against Murkowski’s amendment on the Senate floor, saying it threatened citizen access to cherished hunting and fishing spots.

“I think what we’re starting to see now, is the reaction to that, where very mainstream pragmatic sportsmen groups are stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you’re talking about the places that I hunt and fish, and you’re only telling part of the story, and let’s have a real conversation about this.’ So you’re seeing a lot more push back as a result of that,” Heinrich said Tuesday.

Heinrich said Western states, including New Mexico and Nevada, have already sold off much of their state lands and said that experience clearly points to what hunters and anglers can expect if federal lands are turned over to the states.

“Those were all places where people used to be able to go as sportsmen and access those lands, and now are behind no-trespassing signs,” he said. “That raises some real red flags for sportsmen across the West.”

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