The federal government owns nearly half of all land west of Nebraska, and it is increasingly using that ownership to cut Western states off from the natural resources and tax bases they need to take care of themselves. National polls show a lack of trust in the federal government and a growing reluctance to accept its expanding power. But the one-two punch of resource ownership and the flow of federal funds gives the federal government a seemingly free hand to dictate how Western states educate their kids, manage their economies, and provide core public services. In effect, they are becoming states of dependence.
Many of these states are pushing back to restore a balance between individual and states’ rights and responsibilities on one hand versus the federal estate and federal government intrusions on the other. But this Western backlash against federal overreach could also ripple across the country and help set the tone for Americans’ future relationships with their federal overseers.
Much of the growth in federal power is being done under the aegis of cooperative federalism, where the federal government basically buys the rope and lets the states hang themselves. Many Western states would like to get rid of that rope by asking a very simple question: Why not govern ourselves? Why accept being states of dependence?
Just imagine if America could restore that proper balance and make government more accountable by bringing it closer to home; if we could have a servant instead of a master, a government that works for us, not against us. Imagine being able to decide our future; to figure out how to best educate each of our kids, how to steward our lands, and to provide for our public safety and services using local solutions that take into account local resources and local needs rather than imposed or one-size-fits-all dictates.
But increasing federal power doesn’t allow us to govern ourselves, and we can get an idea of who is most at risk by looking at who’s manning the barricades against overreaching and often counterproductive federal policies. The West is the proverbial canary in the coalmine as the federal government is able to impose more of its power and create greater dependence by controlling access to Western resources.
That’s why you see Nevada ranchers getting on their horses and riding to the district Bureau of Land Management offices to protest new grazing restrictions. It’s why ATV riders in Utah are protesting trail closures on public lands that they have used responsibly for generations. It’s why county commissioners in New Mexico are threatening to break locks—installed by federal officials—that block access to water that ranchers have used responsibly and improved since before New Mexico was even a state. And it’s why Utah certified public accountants called upon the legislature to get a better handle on the inherent risks of depending on federal funds to perform core state functions.
The primary vulnerability to federal overreach in the West is the states’ lack of control over their own resources. The primary driver for that lack of control is the simple fact that they don’t own the land those resources are on and under. Fifty percent of all land, over 600 million acres, west of the Colorado/Nebraska line is owned by the federal government, making up 91 percent of all federal lands in the nation. That’s enough land to cover every state on the Eastern Seaboard, plus Kansas, plus Texas, plus France. That’s just unfair: Western states are cut off from 50 percent of their tax base and have little say over 50 percent of their economic potential, just because they came to the Union later in our nation’s history.
Click here to read the rest of this article by Carl Graham at the Heritage Foundation’s InsiderOnline. It was also printed in the summer 2014 edition of the Insider.