Activists' New Tune In the West: This Land Is Our Land

VOTERS in Coos Bay, Ore., soon may get the chance to decide whether to take over federal land and arrest government employees for trespassing.

``We don't want to be a colony of the rest of the United States,'' says John Shank, head of the ad hoc group Empower US that gathered signatures for such a ballot initiative in this coastal community traditionally populated with loggers and mill workers.

While congressional Republicans and President Clinton jockey over the transfer of some government programs to the states, many out West are pushing for something far more radical: control if not outright ownership of hundreds of millions of acres of territory owned by Uncle Sam.

* Western lawmakers are drafting bills in the US House and Senate that would offer hundreds of millions of acres of federal land to their states.

* Another proposal in Congress could lead to a ``Park Closure Commission'' similar to the military base closure commission. This envisions focusing federal resources on some national parks while turning others over to state control.

* Legislators in five states (most recently California) have passed resolutions citing the US Constitution to assert sovereignty over federal land. About a dozen more states are moving in this direction.

* Several hundred Western counties have passed ``home rule'' resolutions forcing federal agencies to pay more attention to local customs and economic interests in managing federal land.

``It's really getting to be a powerful movement,'' says Mike Kelley, a retired police officer from Oroville, Calif., who pushed for home rule of federal land in Butte County.

In some rural areas, this has led to confrontation in meeting rooms and out in the countryside.

A commissioner in Nevada last March used a gentle persuader - a county bulldozer - to knock down three miles of fence around federal land.

The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a reform-minded group of whistle-blowers and other federal workers, has filed suit in federal court challenging a home-rule ordinance in Walla Walla County, Wash.

``As we looked at what was happening throughout the West, we didn't just want to make a statement, we wanted to make something happen,'' says Mr. Shank, the retired naval officer who heads the effort in Coos County, Ore., which is 51 percent federal land.

``We're satisfied that we are as capable of managing the lands in our county as anybody in Illinois or Delaware or New York,'' says Shank. ``This is an issue whose time has arrived.''

Across the West, federal agencies control much - in some cases most - of the territory within state borders. Some of this is in national parks, wilderness, and other areas set aside for conservation and public enjoyment. But most of it is held by two agencies that trace their roots to westward expansion.

These are the US Forest Service (part of the Agriculture Department) - which oversees forested areas for timber production, recreation, and environmental protection - and the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Interior Department), which got the arid land left over after homesteaders picked the best range land and railroads chose their routes.

Between them, the Forest Service and BLM are landlords for some 700 million acres.

Control of such lands became a political big deal when Congress started passing major environmental legislation about 20 years ago, after which federal-land managers began imposing new regulations on such traditional activities as logging, mining, and ranching.

For the most part, environmentalists say, agencies like the Forest Service and BLM have stayed too cozy with the industries they're supposed to oversee. (Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently backed off a proposal to raise grazing fees on federal land.)

But many rural Westerners feel corralled by federal bureaucrats' efforts to protect endangered species and fragile ecosystems. And they resent the heavy hand of Uncle Sam felt particularly in the West. ``Other states aren't half-owned by the federal government,'' complains a congressional aide from Wyoming.

For the moment, it seems that most historical thinking and case law is running against home-rule activists.

``I recognize that those are publicly owned lands,'' Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) reportedly told a recent meeting of the Western Governors Association, which he chairs. ``The argument has passed us in terms of who owns the lands.''

But others insist that the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution (reserving to the states ``the powers not delegated to the United States``) opens the possibility of a state takeover.

``The 10th Amendment movement may be America's last chance to peacefully get Congress to obey the Constitution,'' conservative economist Walter Williams warned in a recent syndicated column. ``Politicians have seriously underestimated public anger and are blind to the rebellion spreading across the land.''

While home-rule activists in the West are eager to disengage from Uncle Sam, their representatives in Congress are moving more deliberately.

One concern is the potential loss of federal revenue from natural resources at a time when the push is on to balance the US budget. Says one Republican congressional source: ``That's a key question, a really key question.''

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