It’s not just Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who attempted to defend his land from federal government oversight with weapons before resorting to lawyers, who is taking up arms against the federal government in disputes over land and usage rights in the American West. Most recently, Utah is suing the Bureau of Land Management after it “unlawfully foreclosed oil and gas leasing on protected lands,” according to this Daily Caller article online. Bringing oil and gas lawyers into the ring with them, Uintah County and the Utah Association of Counties is claiming that the BLM has left them out of management decisions of the land, and that the imposition of “wilderness criteria” on “lands outside designated wilderness and wilderness study areas” is in violation of their previous agreement.
The case may get hot, fast. Federal attorneys are arguing that Utah has “failed to show actionable injury,” and basically, may not get a say in the BLM’s move, if and when it happens (it hasn’t yet). Some of the o
il and gas lawyers in Texas and other generally anti-federal-regulation states, like Michael Hancock, say the BLM’s posturing is part of a broader historical strategy to manage lands in the West. The director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Self Government in the West, Carl Graham, takes it a step further, and argues that federal lands west of the Colorado/Nebraska line “should be transferred over to western states for better and more efficient management.”
And that’s what Utah’s oil and gas lawyers would argue in this suit against the BLM, using results from recent studies conducted by the Nevada Public Land Management Task Force, for example, in which “BLM-managed lands resulted in a loss of 91 cents per acre” in contrast to state-managed lands. Another study conducted by the Forest Service in 2002 argues that the bureaucratic red tape and administrative gridlock the feds experience in managing lands that are part of the National Forest System make responsible management by the federal government impossible.
Additionally, oil and gas lawyers following the suit, like Hancock in Texas, note that federal management of lands takes not only control out of the hands of the people who live on and around the area, but also the fiduciary relationship. People living on the East Coast would pay billions of dollars a year to manage federal lands. Graham contends that they’d be “paying for the privilege of keeping the West from being productive.” Which is kind of the crux, here, anyway.
As Americans, what are our priorities? Do we want cheaper oil and gas, local jobs, economic growth, sustainable industry, and more local autonomy? Or do we want to keep those lands that the federal government once deemed necessary of protection from development and pristine, lest America lose its natural resources, beauty and wilderness. At what point do we change are minds—are we allowed to? This is a philosophical argument that is as old as America itself. Now we hope that the lawyers help us make the best decision for the future.