The West’s Fight for Self-Government

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.

If the federal government owned half the casinos in Las Vegas and started shutting down blackjack tables, how many people would lose their jobs? If they owned half the Florida beaches and started fencing them off, what would that do to the local tax base?

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.


If the federal government owned half the casinos in Las Vegas and started shutting down blackjack tables, how many people would lose their jobs? If they owned half the Florida beaches and started fencing them off, what would that do to the local tax base? Las Vegas has casinos. Florida has beaches. The West has natural resources. Taking 50 percent of anyone’s or any industry’s livelihood off the table is going to hurt in ways that are as obvious as they are avoidable.

Some say these lands are national treasures that belong to all of us. Yes, some of them are. But not a lot of them. Nobody is seriously talking about taking over or closing down national parks, or wilderness areas, or other unique or fragile places. These special lands are the exception and should remain the exception. But they comprise a small fraction of the federal estate in the West.

Generally speaking, those types of special lands make up less than 15 percent of federal holdings in any given Western state. The vast majority are lands amenable to (and originally designated for) multiple uses, including recreational, aesthetic, and economic purposes. That’s 20 million to 30 million acres—an area the size of Virginia—within each Western state that can and should be used with the complementary goals of conserving the land and bettering the human condition.

Five states are somewhere in the process of demanding control of federal lands to further those goals. Utah has passed a law, the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demands that most of those multiple-use lands be turned over to state control. Four other states, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada, are studying the pros and cons of making similar demands. Those states will consider bills similar to Utah’s during their 2015 legislative sessions, while several others will step up their efforts to study the issue.

Work is also being done at the congressional level by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and others. In the end, though, just as each parcel of land will have its own unique best use, each state is probably going to have its own tailored solution. These are lands with trillions of dollars in resources, billions of dollars in potential tax revenues, and hundreds of thousands of jobs being increasingly locked up by people who really don’t understand what is at stake. And it’s not just dollars and cents.

It’s ironic that many of the very people who rightly care about diversity are also acting to choke off an entire way of life. They are imposing their values on the rural production economy in ways and with effects that they often don’t understand. Most Western states are working to stop that—to protect the lands, enhancing conservation and bettering of the human condition, while using those lands for enjoyment and productivity now and long into the future. In short, to be proper stewards.

Western states’ lack of control over their resources opens another means of federal imposition and control. The federal government accounts for an increasing portion of state budgets, often to those states’ detriment. On average, about a third of state spending is provided by federal funds. In Western states, one of the reasons for this increased dependence is lack of access to their revenue base. But these federal funds are not gifts. They are being used to tell Westerners how to educate their kids; how to provide for public safety; how to run their businesses, their charities, and their government; and how to take care of their environment and resources.

This dependence isn’t just a Western problem. It’s happening with states across the nation. Much of the federal funding for the states is discretionary spending. As interest rates return to historical norms, discretionary spending will be further squeezed between entitlement spending (which cannot be cut except through program reforms) and servicing the national debt (which is a legal obligation of the government). Again, Western states are the canary in the coalmine because of the combined effects of their dependence and lack of flexibility in addressing future federal budget surprises. So they need to create a plan for when the next federal funding crisis occurs.

States need to have their eyes wide open to see federal funds and the strings that are attached to them. They need to measure the risks of accepting those funds against the rewards. They need to do what we all do in our everyday lives: prepare. They need to plan for that day when those funds dry up so that the right programs are cut or maintained. It’s unbelievable that states don’t already have that level of foresight or haven’t done that basic planning, but they don’t and they haven’t.

This type of responsible pushback and planning also goes beyond just wanting to do the right things. It advances conservatism and conservative principles. These are winning issues for a center-right country. They show the costs of and provide alternatives to going down the wrong path.

This task is important because the Left is working to change the electoral map. It’s trying to create a permanent majority by making more people dependent on, more beholden to, and just flat-out scared of criticizing a stronger federal bureaucracy.

The Left increases dependence through increased benefits. Food stamp recipients are at record numbers. ObamaCare raises the cost of health care and then subsidizes the increase. What a deal! They’ve taken a basic need and turned it into a government-issued privilege like a driver’s license.

The Left’s policies are also increasing the number of individuals and businesses beholden to big government by explicitly picking winners and losers.

“Crony capitalist” is an oxymoron. If you’re a capitalist, you want to have your goods and services out there in the marketplace. You want to compete and succeed on your merits. If you are a crony corporatist, on the other hand, you use connections to get targeted subsidies or special tax treatment. You get regulations to impede competition. You want a government that’s big and powerful enough to pick winners and losers. Increased dependence is a small price to pay if you get to help them do the picking.

The Left is also trying to build its permanent majority by creating fear: browbeating, threatening, and silencing its opponents. We’ve seen political leaders publicly berating and calling on federal agencies to target private citizens who are engaging in legal speech. They threaten their opponents’ jobs and privacy over political and religious beliefs.

They are able to do these things because of the dependence that we as a society have tacitly approved—by accepting dependence, becoming beholden, or succumbing to fear. We’ve got to cut those apron strings and restore our independence and our ability to govern ourselves. We need ideas that we can unite behind as a center-right nation, and the federal lands and federal funds issues meet that standard.

It’s clear that these are winning issues in the West. Tom, a rancher in Malta, Mont., shouldn’t be forced off land that his grandfather homesteaded because George Soros saw Dancing with Wolves and wants to put bison out there.

Jose, who comes from an original land-grant family, shouldn’t lose access to land in New Mexico that his family has responsibly grazed and improved since the 1600s because some San Francisco billionaire held a fundraiser with his rich buddies and wants to make room for a jumping mouse.

A home-care provider in Boise, Idaho, should not lose her job over a 10 percent across-the-board federal budget cut while the state continues to run an “Eat Your Vegetables” public service announcement because it comes from a different pot of money. States should be able to prioritize those things and fund the people and programs that are really needed.

What we’re witnessing—and participating in—is a philosophical war for the West and the freedoms we all cherish. It’s a movement to restore the proper balance between individual fulfillment, the betterment of the human condition, and federal power. We can show working-class families, the old Reagan Democrats, that there is somebody out there fighting for them and that there is a path forward for them that enhances their traditional values of hard work, family, and community. We can move these issues forward if we can control our resources and our priorities.

But it’s not enough to preach to the choir about these issues. A lot of the folks who want to make those resources available belong to the rural production economy that is having a very difficult time having its voice heard. They are effectively being disenfranchised because their voice is smaller than the urban voice right now. The problem is simple math: There are more urban voters than there are rural voters, and they don’t always share the same sets of values.

What are urban voters? That’s not a code word or a dog whistle. The urban/rural distinction is measured by population density but also a sense of connectedness (or disconnectedness) with the rural production economy. There are values, ethics, and lifestyles attached to that economy that make it work. The further one gets from the land, the less understanding one has of the lifestyle that makes it work, and the more likely one is to shove those values aside without caring about or even recognizing the harm that’s being done.

So if you go out west to Billings, Mont., to Albuquerque, N.M., or to Boise, Idaho, most of the people you meet will be at most one or two generations removed from somebody who actually worked the land and its many resources. They understand those rural values. They understand what’s needed for that rural production economy. People in larger urban areas don’t understand the lifestyle and values that make that economy work, to say nothing of the logistics or scales. So they will, sometimes unintentionally, harm the very people, families, and communities that put electricity in their outlets, gas in their cars, and food in their pantries; and provide so many other things that a modern society needs to survive.

Self-determination, self-government—that’s what is really at stake right now in this war for the West that is picking up steam. It’s not about dollars and cents. What really matters for those who have the most to lose is basic fairness.

When rural Americans put on their boots in the morning, they’re not just going to work. They’re preserving the traditional values and ideals that made this country great. They’re powering the greatest economy in the world. They’re building a stronger, more environmentally responsible, and sustainable future through a rural production economy that values hard work, family, and community. There are people who don’t understand the importance of that, and who are working very hard to prevent rural Americans from pursuing happiness and providing the building blocks of the American dream.

Self-determination, self-government—that’s what is really at stake right now in this war for the West that is picking up steam. It’s not about dollars and cents. What really matters for those who have the most to lose is basic fairness. It’s about preserving the viability and the values of our rural production economy and building a united majority of Americans who understand that good intentions alone don’t build great nations.

Our philosophical war is in the West, but hopefully you’ll create your own revolt in your own back yard. There are many of us canaries in the coalmine who would be happy to help you.

Mr. Graham is Director of the Center for Self-Government in the West at the Sutherland Institute.