Each American has an undivided right to federal lands

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In a notable display of uber-conservative lunacy, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed bills last month that set aside $3 million to fund lawsuits aimed at taking over Utah lands owned by the wicked federal guv’mint.

The Feds own more than 60 percent of Utah, which many Utahans resent. Reasoning that proximity to these lands should confer possession, Utah plans to invoke eminent domain, seize the land, sell or develop it, and watch the tax revenues roll in.

Like the attempt by 13 state attorneys general (all Republicans, except the guy from Louisiana) to nullify Obamacare, this particular charade has little chance of success.

Why? Because Utahans have no special rights to federal lands anywhere, whether in Utah, Colorado, or Hawaii. Every American citizen has an equal and undivided right to such property. My share of Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon, or the Pike National Forest is the same as yours, or Warren Buffet’s, or that of a homeless person camping beside Fountain Creek. Attempting to seize the nation’s property for the benefit of a few is outrageous and absurd.

So will other states join Utah’s land grab? Is this the beginning of insurrection, a righteous attempt by the long-suffering residents of the West to throw off the federal yoke, and join together to control their own destinies? Is Gov. Herbert ready to lead us, not out of the wilderness but into the wilderness, where the unfeeling Feds have locked up untold wealth in timber, minerals, oil, and developable land ready for us to use and profit from? Men and women of the West, arise, and replace your chains with gains!

Given that the federal government owns substantial chunks of every Western state, you’d think that this particular iteration of the “sagebrush rebellion” of the 1980s might resonate. I doubt it will, because states in the intermountain West are not independent actors upon the national stage. They’re often de facto wards of the federal government, dependent on federal actions that have little to do with land ownership. Sensible governments in the region work cooperatively with Washington, realizing that money flows from Washington often exceed money flows to Washington.

Consider our fair city. We may be so prim, proper, and prudish that we’d rather do without trash cans in parks than endure the sight of a comely blonde in a lettuce bikini, but we have no qualms about the federal dollars that buttress Colorado Springs.

Military expenditures, from the magnificence of the Air Force Academy to the pension that my pal Major Mike collects every month, account for nearly a third of our economy. The state government can do what it wants, but every Colorado Springs businessperson and elected representative understands the supreme importance of Washington and the Pentagon to our well-being.

Our neighbors in Wyoming, where most of the nation’s low-sulfur coal is mined, may ardently support free markets. Yet without the mandates of the Clean Air act, it’s unlikely that low BTU Wyoming coal would have found a national market.

Without federal action, Nevada and Arizona would still be hardscrabble western deserts. The Feds oversaw the Colorado River compact that divided the river’s water among the seven conterminous states of the Southwest, and built the great dams on the Colorado that sustain the lower basin states. And as climate change threatens the Colorado River basin, the federal government will ultimately decide how the river’s diminishing flows will be allocated.

Absent a powerful and effective federal government, who will enforce the compact? Most of the river’s water comes from the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. If Utah can seize federal lands, then Colorado can nullify the compact, and take whatever water it pleases. And if that spells economic disaster for the lower basin states, so be it! It’s our snow, our water, and our river — we don’t need no stinkin’ federal mandates.

That’s not going to happen, because states are no longer actors in the unfolding history of the West.

As the Brookings Institute pointed out last fall in a study of the region, Western states are accidents of history. Created by mapmakers and politicians during the 19th century, state boundaries are as divorced from history and geography as were those of colonial Africa.

Brookings noted that regional economies are dominated by “mountain megalopolises,” such as the Fort Collins/Boulder/Denver/Colorado Springs megaplex. Fueled by the restless creativity of new businesses and old, of today’s residents and new immigrants, these supercities create, sustain and define our economic environment. State bureaucracies just get in the way, collecting taxes, administering federal mandates, and diverting revenue from the supercities. Not much of a job, but that’s what they do.

We can’t do anything about Gov. Herbert, but we might gently suggest to Atty. Gen. John Suthers that he leave the big dogs alone.

They might bite.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861.