The new range war

As a movement builds to sell off US public lands or hand control of them to the states, many ranchers and hunters are resisting. Here’s why.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Merill Beyeler, who runs a ranch outside Leadore, Idaho, wants public lands to stay public – not be sold to private interests or fall under state control.

Merill Beyeler bears the classic look of a Western rancher. He’s got the leathery face of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors. He wears flannel shirts, jeans, and a bone-colored cowboy hat.

Mr. Beyeler, whose family roots in Idaho’s Lemhi County extend back to the 1850s, is also a rock-ribbed Republican. True, in Idaho, one of the reddest states in the nation, most people are Republican. But in Lemhi County, a hauntingly beautiful expanse of bald, taupe mountains and verdant river valleys wedged up against the Montana border, virtually no one puts a Democratic bumper sticker on his or her pickup. So you’d think that people like Beyeler would be happy at the prospect of the new Trump administration, buttressed by one of the most conservative cabinets in decades, ushering in a dramatic change in the management of public lands in the West. You’d think that they would relish the prospect of federal agencies either opening up more expanses to ranchers and commercial interests or giving more control to states.

You’d be wrong.

While Beyeler occasionally chafes at the way federal lands are managed, he doesn’t want US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land opened up unconditionally to loggers or developers, or – worse – handed over to bureaucrats in Boise and sold off. “The reason you come home is that this is the soul of our people,” he says. “When you look at our public lands in that respect – as an economic driver and as the soul of our state – the idea of losing that, or risking that, is just too great.”

As the Trump administration works to fashion an identity in Washington, one of the big questions is how much the federal government will change its stewardship of public lands in the West. With Republicans in control of Congress, many envision a significant shift in access to and development of public expanses similar to what happened under the Reagan administration 35 years ago. They believe it could be one of the signature achievements of the Trump era. A few on the right are even pushing for an outright transfer of some of those lands to state control.

Yet others – including many Republicans – occupy a more pragmatic middle. Like Beyeler, they are looking for a recalibration rather than a land-management revolution. They believe that the natural landscape is as much a part of the region’s identity as coal seams and oil shale and requires at least some federal stewardship. And they believe firmly that public lands need to stay public – not sold off to private interests.

When Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah recently introduced a bill in Congress to sell 3.3 million acres of federal lands in the West, he was forced to withdraw the legislation days later because of the backlash from his own constituents, many of whom regularly fish for trout or hunt elk on federal lands.

“I’ve been working in this field for 17 years, and no one has ever seen a congressman introduce a bill and then withdraw it within a week,” says Land Tawney, director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonprofit that fiercely opposed the bill. “The sportsman community is about 70 percent conservative. We’re finding this is a unifying issue, with folks on both sides of the aisle. There can be nothing more American than our public lands.”

The land-use decisions of the next four years will have the most impact in places like Lemhi County, which is 92 percent owned by the federal government. Few areas of the United States are more remote than the high desert sagebrush area here.

Salmon, the county’s largest town, is 90 miles from a railroad, and 150 miles from an airport, the Interstate, or a Wal-Mart. The county is empty, stark, and stunning. Local ranchers and residents differ – even within families – over how public lands should be managed. But some of them are also working with government officials in a way that could become a model for solving future land wars in the West.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Land-use decisions in Washington have a big impact on towns like Salmon, Idaho.

The battle over public lands and resources is as old as westward expansion itself. It extends from early fights over mining and water claims in the 1800s to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s to the anti-Washington “wise-use movement” of the 1980s and ’90s. The only constant in it all is the ebb and flow of tensions between Western residents and the largest landholder, Washington.

“The political side of it dates all the way back to the creation of the country,” says Robert Keiter, a law professor at the University of Utah and director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment.

Last year, simmering frustrations about federal control over Western lands culminated most visibly in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by militant ranchers. Yet Westerners’ grievances have been finding an outlet through various assaults in Washington as well.

In late April, the Trump administration ordered the Interior Department to review some 30 places that have been designated national monuments over the past 20 years. The White House believes the designations have increasingly set aside more land than was intended under the 1906 Antiquities Act, costing the nation jobs. Environmentalists see the move undermining one of the most important tools for protecting national parks and public lands.

The change could affect places such as the Bears Ears National Monument, in the red-rock area of southern Utah, which was protected in the waning days of the Obama administration. Several Utah lawmakers, including Mr. Chaffetz and Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, have been pressing to overturn the designation. (In response, the Outdoor Industry Association pulled a trade show, which brings about $45 million a year to Utah, from Salt Lake City.)

Western lawmakers have also been pushing the idea of selling off some public lands to private parties, or transferring them to state ownership. And the Trump administration is trying to repeal a regulation that requires oil and gas firms operating on public lands to control their methane emissions. 

Behind all the rebellious moves is the size of Washington’s real estate portfolio. The federal government owns 47 percent of all the land in 11 Western states. That ranges from a high of 85 percent in Nevada to a low of 30 percent in Montana. 

“It’s a long-standing irritation, and at times it becomes more pronounced,” says Lynn Scarlett, global managing director for public policy for The Nature Conservancy and a former deputy Interior secretary under President George W. Bush. Ms. Scarlett says tensions have always simmered over how the federal government manages those lands in regard to energy development, mining, grazing rights, and endangered species.

What’s new in the latest backlash, she says, is the focus on the lack of maintenance on public lands, which is largely the result of federal agencies getting less funding. Departments such as the Forest Service, BLM, and US Fish & Wildlife Service had hoped that highlighting the backlog of work would help them garner more funds. Instead, critics have just seized on the maintenance issues to buttress their argument that the federal government isn’t the right steward of public lands.

“The bottom line is that we want our public lands to be managed in a way that’s responsible,” says Jennifer Fielder, a Montana state senator and chief executive officer of the American Lands Council, a leader in the call to transfer federal land to state control. “Those of us who live near here are sick of seeing the lock-it-up and let-it-burn policies out of Washington.”

Senator Fielder says she watches the ineptitude from her living-room window in Montana. The Feds’ inability or unwillingness to thin underbrush and perform other basic management practices, she says, led to a wildfire last summer becoming much larger, and more expensive, than it needed to be. “Forty thousand acres burnt to a crisp, habitat destroyed,” she says.

Others believe that having an absentee landlord isn’t the best way to care for property and that the people closest to the land are the ones who know best how to manage it – and should reap the benefits from it.

“Without these lands, you can’t operate as a republican form of government inside your state,” says Jim Chmelik, a former Idaho county commissioner and a leader of the land-transfer movement. “If you don’t have access to your resources, you can’t provide good-paying jobs and you can’t provide a good quality of life.”

Yet critics of shifting control to the states believe it will either lead to lands being sold off to private interests or an oil derrick being put on top of every ridge, despoiling the natural beauty that attracts people from around the country – and contributes to regional economies. States also have far fewer resources than Washington to manage the vast public expanses. And most states are required to balance their budgets, which could put pressure on them to sell lands in lean times, even if they vow not to do so.

As proof, critics point out that 11 Western states were granted a total of almost 77 million acres of land at statehood. They’ve sold off about 44 percent of those lands. Nevada, granted 2.7 million acres at its founding, now has just 3,000 acres of public state land. 

“Study after study has shown states can’t afford” to manage public lands well, says Mr. Tawney of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Ann Hermes/Staff
‘Old-time customs and culture – that’s the way we like it,’ says Wayne Butts, a Custer County (Idaho) commissioner, referring to the need for ranching, mining, and logging on federal lands.

Just south of Lehmi lies Custer County – home of some of the most spectacular wilderness in Idaho. The celebrated Middle Fork of the Salmon River flows through the area, and the rugged Sawtooth Mountains rise steeply from the plains. It’s the third largest county in Idaho, but home to barely 4,000 people. Roughly 96 percent of the county is federal land.

“Custer County is the size of Connecticut, but we have one sheriff and four deputies,” says Wayne Butts, a county commissioner who has lived in Challis, the county seat, since he was 8. “There’s no tax bases.”

Sitting next to the warmth of a wood-burning stove in his small-motor repair shop, he ticks off the economic limitations of living in a remote area: The county has a 100-year-old jail with just six beds in one room, making it impossible to house men and women at the same time. Local roads are in desperate need of repair, but no money exists to fix them. A decrease in grazing rights on federal lands has led to fewer ranchers, resulting in less local revenue. A molybdenum mine, once the county’s largest employer, shut down in 2014.

People come from all over the country to hike, fish, and play in Custer County, but don’t add much to the economy, says Mr. Butts: Many of them drive in from Boise, bring their own food and camping supplies. They don’t even buy gas in Custer.

“Old-time customs and culture – that’s the way we like it,” says Butts. To him, that means ranching, mining, logging. He’s frustrated that federal lands increasingly seem to be managed to inhibit those activities.

Still, despite all those irritations, Butts isn’t willing to back transferring lands to state ownership unless he sees a budget proposal that makes sense to him. He thinks either the state or local communities could do a better job managing the lands, but he is well aware of the costs involved. Instead, he wants to see limits put on turning any more private land into public land and hopes that the Trump administration and Republican Congress will help roll back some of the more onerous environmental protections on federal lands that already exist.

A few dozen miles to the east of Challis, in the shadow of Idaho’s tallest peak, Mt. Borah, Steve Smith shares many of Butts’s grievances. Mr. Smith and his parents live on his family’s 2,800-acre ranch, where they have a herd of 400 cows.

Just a mention of public lands is enough to set Smith and his father, Wiley, off, venting about their years of vexation in dealing with the BLM and Forest Service. This has included navigating around what they see as burdensome protections for the sage grouse, as well as a BLM water-rights claim that took them years to defeat.

Yet even this father and son don’t agree on whether control of public lands should be shifted from Washington to the states. Despite his virulent criticism of federal management, Wiley doesn’t believe states have the resources to care for public lands.

Steve would like to see a modest transfer – perhaps 2 percent of total holdings – provided states have a plan for how they will manage the areas. “The ranchers, the miners, the loggers – they’re the ones that have taken care of these areas,” he says. “[Federal officials] put a black mark on those industries and don’t see that [the land] has been in their care for 150 years.”

Others are more adamant in their opposition to state control. On a cold, rainy Saturday in March, nearly 3,000 people gathered at the State Capitol in Boise to support public lands staying public – and under federal stewardship.

The demonstration attracted plenty of traditional environmentalists, but also hunters, anglers, and dirt-bike riders. “Rednecks and hippies unite!” read one sign. “I fill my freezer on public lands,” said another.

In between various chants – such as “Keep public lands in public hands!” – the crowd listened to speakers ranging from a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to a fifth-generation Idaho woman who talked of accompanying her mother on her first moose hunt when she was 8 days old.

“I hunt and I fish on public lands,” says Travis Long, who came to the rally from Kuna, Idaho, outfitted in camouflage. “I’ve got four kids and I want to make sure public lands remain that way.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Volunteers Chris Gaughan, Scott Brand, Laurel Faurot, and Brady Bever smooth a trail near Salmon, Idaho, as part of an Earth Day event organized by a local natural resource collaborative.

It is too early to know what a Trump administration will mean for public lands. Much of the push to undermine the power of federal oversight agencies, or to transfer or sell off public lands, is coming from Congress, and President Trump’s Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, has repeatedly said he would never transfer or sell them.

“I think we’re in a better place with [Mr. Trump and Mr. Zinke] than we would have been with others interviewed for the Interior secretary, or with Ted Cruz,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a nonprofit that represents sportsmen and sportswomen.

At the same time, Mr. Fosburgh and other conservation leaders say they’re concerned about legislation that has been passed or proposed. In March, for instance, the Trump administration rescinded Barack Obama’s three-year moratorium on coal leases on federal land. A proposed bill in Congress would strip the Forest Service and BLM of their law enforcement powers, putting the job of policing environmental and other rules in the hands of local sheriffs.

“It’s one more attempt to weaken management of public lands,” says Fosburgh.

Trump’s proposed budget also includes a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department, which could make maintenance of public lands even more problematic and give states more leverage in their quest to take over. 

Eventually, it’s possible that some of the hostility to Washington’s handling of public lands will die down under the new administration. The Sagebrush Rebellion subsided once Reagan came to power.

“In the big picture politically, it would not surprise me if [the transfer movement] slowly disappears from the radar screen with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House,” says Mr. Keiter, the Utah law professor. “It works as an oppositional strategy to more progressive or environmentally friendly policies of Democratic administrations.”

Perhaps the best hope for ending the standoffs over public lands is a more collaborative approach in the canyons and valley floors of the West itself – far from the politics of Washington and statehouses. One such effort is under way in Salmon, where ranchers, federal agencies, and conservation groups are finding common ground.

“What doesn’t get attention is the really good, responsible, productive work taking place on the Western landscape,” says Beyeler, the Lemhi County rancher.

At the same time that the Malheur standoff was occurring, he notes, the Forest Service and BLM were working with a local rancher to help him get seven miles of pipeline approved in an area that includes an important salmon spawning tributary. Endangered sockeye salmon travel more than 900 miles, up 6,500 feet of elevation, to spawn in rivers and lakes here.

“It was a collaborative process,” says Beyeler. “I worry that this tension on whether the state or federal government should own [public lands] distracts from the collaborative work.”

Tom Page, another Salmon Valley rancher, got into ranching in part because he wanted to see if he could do it in a conservation-minded way – and make money. He is surprised by how hard it has been to navigate all the environmental rules and by how difficult lawsuits filed by activists make it for local landowners.

When he recently sought to get approval for 200 feet of fence on his grazing allotment, to keep cows from straying into restricted forest land, federal officials told him not to apply for the permit. Because it would disturb fish and sage grouse habitat, the US Forest Service “knows they have to write a thick document for those 200 feet of fence,” says Mr. Page, and that they’re likely to be sued by environmentalists – which was not worth it, in their view, for such as small project.

The Upper Salmon area, Page agrees, has become a model for conservation and collaboration – but only because it has nonprofits and both federal and private money helping to support that work. In rural counties with less federal attention, there tends to be a lot less trust, he says.

Bob Cope has seen both cooperation and conflict. A large man with a deep voice and earthy sense of humor, he is a veterinarian for all the local ranchers as well as a Lemhi County commissioner. He has served on numerous state and federal committees representing Western interests.

With face-to-face collaboration and local involvement, he says public-lands disputes are solvable. But he understands people’s frustrations, especially when they see onerous rules being made by people back East.

“We can work with our federal officials, but [local people] get handcuffed,” he says. “We’ve had management by legislation and litigation. There’s still a lot of mistrust on both sides…. People feel like they have no voice.”

Over on the 25,000-acre ranch he’s managed for 20 years, Shane Rosenkrance epitomizes the attitude of many people in this part of Idaho. He harbors a deep love for the lands he manages and the public holdings that surround them. Mr. Rosenkrance points to the imposing peaks rising out of the desert floor – the Lost River Range, the Pioneer Mountains, Mt. Borah. He wants them to remain in federal hands and not be sold to individuals who might turn them into their own private preserves.

“You can go anywhere you want,” says Rosenkrance, whose family has lived in the valley for seven generations. “Residents appreciate that more than anyone. But we don’t want some guy in New York telling us how to manage these lands, or to lock them up.”

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