The author of a Utah bill that asks the federal government to give back more than 20 million acres of federal land in that state will make a presentation at a joint session of the Idaho Senate and House resource committees at 1:30 p.m.
Republican Rep. Ken Ivory will talk about the bill signed into law by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012. Idaho lawmakers are going to consider similar legislation this year. I have written extensively about this subject and past efforts to right the wrong that western states have long claimed because they were treated differently than eastern states.
But the vast 600-million-acre federal estate of public lands came about in part because western states in the late 1800s rejected the path proposed by visionary hydrologist John Wesley Powell. His vision for the American West based on regulating water, came into conflict with the visions of western lawmakers at the time. He said the the Homestead Act, which limited the acres a settler could obtain through improvement to 160 acres, did not fit the West where water was scarce and where a system of reservoirs and canals was necessary.
He proposed increasing the acres to 2,560 acres, the amount of land he said could sustain 35-50 cows in a grazing operation. Powell said, this was the only viable method of agriculture possible across most of the region outside of irrigated areas.
He proposed to organize the formation of cooperatives – commonwealths he called them -- for water use and grazing, developed along the natural boundaries of watersheds. The farmers who irrigated the lands below would own the forests and the watershed uplands in common to protect the watersheds on which their farms and communities depended.
Unfortunately, politically, these watershed boundaries crossed existing political boundaries such as state and county lines.
This prompted senators and congressmen from Western states to protest his proposal, and his attack on the Homestead Act, one of the great accomplishments of the Republican Party. This scientist was challenging the centerpiece of national western policy.
So in the absence of these commonwealths, industrial developers and capitalists in Chicago, New York, and other urban centers exploited the land laws that were enacted to develop the region, such as the Timber Culture Act, the Desert Land Act, and the Timber and Stone Act to convert public lands to private lands, to steal timber, and to gain access to the resources they could use to feed the growth of the rising industrial giant. My friend libertarian economist Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland said these businesses didn’t have a choice since the system was not logical.
But the public outcry over the exploitation empowered foresters, preservationists and other conservation interests to push for permanent protection of the public lands. They eventually succeeded and today this mix of public lands, national parks and national forests is considered a part of our national birthright.
On top of the legal challenge, western states who want to take over these lands will have to overcome this political reality, not only nationally but in their own states.