Can Western states handle the prize if they win 'sagebrush rebellion'?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A key question underlies the "sagebrush rebellion," espoused by President Reagan: Are Western states able to manage some 400 million acres of federal land that the "rebels" would like to turn over to them?

Until recently, this question remained somewhat muted. But now it has been raised forcefully in a study sponsored by the Denver-based Public Lands Institute (PLI) earlier this month.

The study examines state management of "trust lands" -- acreage granted to Western states to support public education and similar works when the states were admitted to the Union.

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The PLI draws two major conclusions from the report: The state agencies responsible for trust lands are understaffed and have been kept "impoverished" by state legislatures; and with few exceptions, trust lands are off- limits to citizens seeking recreation in the out-of-doors.

As PLI founder Charles H. Callison observes in the study's foreword, "A close look at state land administration has particular pertinence right now because of the so-called 'sagebrush rebellion,' a Western political movement aimed at securing the transfer of the [Federal Bureau of Land Management] lands or the National Forests, or both, to state control. How well equipped are the states, by law, tradition, and experience, to take custody of the vaster area of federal lands?"

The PLI study, conducted by Michigan State University graduate student William C. Patric, is an analysis of the official mandates and policies of trust land administration. "It was beyond the scope of this study to determine if trust lands are being overgrazed . . . or whether state forest lands are actually being liquidated by severe overcutting . . . ," Mr. Patric writes.

On a state-by-state basis, the report reviews the history of state trust land administration and current practices.

It points out that a number of states sold off most of their trust lands shortly after statehood. Of those that retained their land, three have constitutional requirements that this land must be managed to get the maximum possible revenue, and a number of othe states have pursued a similar approach. Only Oregon and Washington have adopted policies that allow for recreation and other nonrevenue use of this land.

Also, the report adds some facts to the commonly voiced criticism that state trust land agencies are understaffed. In Colorado, for instance, each of the four appraisers is responsible for keeping track of some 740,940 acres. New Mexico spends just 19 cents per acre -- only 1 percent of their revenues -- on administering this property.

Anti-sagebrush-rebellion forces are already beginning to use this report for ammunition. State land commissioners are not so enthusiastic.

"It has its biases. In general, it will be perceived as very anti-sagebrush. But it has a lot of good material in it," acknowledges Jack Shaw in Nevada's State Lands Department.

Rowena Rogers, head of Colorado's Board of Land Commissioners and president of the Western States Land Commissioners Association, is more defensive. She feels that the criticism concerning lack of public access is unfair, given the purpose of this land. Also, she takes issue with the assumption that a small staff means the land is not being managed properly.

"The difference between ourselves and the federal government is that we contract out the management of the land to our lease-holders instead of trying to do it ourselves," she maintains.

"You can't rely on ranchers and farmers to manage public lands properly. Some people are good managers while others aren't. Why some of the most overgrazed land in the country right now is privately owned land in Texas," PLI founder Callison counters.

What bothers a number of land commissioners is the implication that the way states have managed trust lands is necessarily how federal lands would be handled should they be turned over to them.

Mr. Callison admits that this conclusion cannot be drawn from the study. Nevertheless, he says it illustrates the fact that "it would take a virtual revolution in state practices and policies of land management to get true multiple use management which is being used b y the federal agencies."

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