Trent England | December 31, 2014
Why Utah’s federal lands fight matters in Oklahoma
This is the last in a five-part series of articles about federal control over land in the American West. Legislation adopted in Utah calls on Congress to hand over certain federal lands there to state control. That law set today as the deadline for federal action.
Just 1.6% of the land that comprises Oklahoma is owned by the federal government. In Utah, where state officials are leading an effort to reduce federal land ownership, that number is 66.5%. Yet there are good reasons why Oklahomans and all Americans should support Utah’s legal and political challenge to Washington, D.C.’s power.
Efficiency. Government, at any level, is a kind of monopoly and therefore prone to inefficiency. Yet the federal government, so massive and so distant, is especially unlikely to manage western lands well. Consider that the Bureau of Land Management offers some grazing rights below market value and the Forest Service losing money on timber sales. State and local authorities are more likely to be held accountable for such boondoggles. In fact, states already do a fine job managing both resource and parklands, as described in part four.
Diversity. Land is one of two special categories in the law of property. The other is artwork. Items in these categories are inherently distinct: you cannot simply substitute one parcel of land or one painting for another. From too great a distance, however, everything blends together. Faraway managers are forced to quantify the qualitative, to reduce what may be irreducible. Federal land managers cannot see the trees for the forest, let alone the families and local communities living alongside them.
The economy. The brightest spot in the slow climb out of the Great Recession has been the oil and gas industry (even the Progressive Policy Institute branded the industry “Investment Heroes”). Technological leaps have made individual wells far more productive. This was a boon for oil producers and has now become a boon for American consumers (and is clobbering authoritarian regimes like Venezuela and Russia). It is also great for the environment, and not just because of natural gas. As each well becomes more efficient, fewer well platforms are needed to produce the same amount of energy. While some environmentalists celebrate these advances, D.C.’s green lobbying machines continue working to deny access to federal lands, even lands set aside specifically for resource production.
Constitutional federalism and self-government. Today, members of Congress from New York City have more say over two-thirds of the land in Utah than that state’s own elected representatives. The constitutional structure of federalism was created to prevent exactly that. Most power is left with the states, and enumerated federal powers relate to true national interests like self preservation and interstate and international trade. The federal government was never intended to be a land manager, nor to use land ownership to trump constitutional limits. Doing so treats western states less like coequal states and more like colonies. It disrespects the people within those states and their institutions. And it throws the constitutional system out of balance for all Americans.
Congress is not going to meet Utah’s deadline, but this is hardly the end of the story. Utah’s elected leaders plan to pursue their case both in courts of law and in the more important court of public opinion. Americans everywhere, including here in Oklahoma, have a stake in restoring the balance of constitutional federalism and getting Washington, D.C., out of the land management business.
David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow
Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.