BILLINGS – The push by some conservative lawmakers to get states to take over management of federal lands in the West is a “cold, dead hands” issue for Randy Newberg.
“It’s not something that’s going to happen without a fight,” said the Bozeman accountant turned national television hunting celebrity.
“I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” was a phrase popularized in the 1970s by a National Rifle Association bumper sticker. Newberg has revived a portion of the phrase to apply to a different fight that he said outdoors folks must wage to ensure federal public lands stay in the public’s hands.
“We can’t be the polite people we are,” he said. “Don’t give these guys a break; tear them a new one.”
The push for states to take over federal lands was launched in a conservative Utah county in 2012 and has since spread across the West. At the core of the arguments for the takeover has been that states know best how to manage the public lands within their borders, can do it with less bureaucracy and can make money by charging higher fees for natural resources like timber, oil and gas.
Newberg sees the numbers argument – that states can make more money than federal agencies for the same resources – as a poor claim.
“To say that all of these public lands are a value written on paper, that’s B.S.,” he said.
He prefers to look at them as a financial trust that should be kept intact for future generations.
“If this were a financial trust – full of bonds, stocks and real estate – imagine how foolish this would sound,” he said.
Other hunters and anglers have agreed. During this year’s Montana Legislature they packed the Capitol rotunda to protest legislation aimed at exploring a federal lands takeover.
Montana wasn’t alone. All together there were 37 bills introduced in 11 states to promote the transfer of federal lands, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Only six bills in four states passed.”
Although the rhetoric from that confrontation and others across the West may have faded, the groups behind the push have continued their work, this time in the halls of Congress.
In March a budget amendment seen as a testing of the waters about disposing of federal lands was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. It passed the Senate by a 51-49 vote largely along party lines with Montana Sen. Steve Daines voting in favor of the legislation while Sen. Jon Tester voted no.
The wording of the amendment was to “establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land.” According to a Washington Post story, such legislation has become more common among federal lawmakers.
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“These deficit-neutral reserve funds are popular because they carve out an area for future policymaking without having to specify upfront a precise mix of revenues and/or spending cuts to pay for them,” according to Sarah Binder, a rules expert at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, that the Post quoted.
Taking the legislation to Washington, D.C., won’t stop Newberg from continuing his objections to the idea.
Speaking with the fervor of a revivalist preacher, Newberg said he and other hunters are willing to “kick the ass of Congress so hard that they’ll have to drop their drawers to floss their teeth” if they pursue the issue.
“They view this as a battle and they say it that way,” he said of his opponents. “And if they want a battle, bring it on.”
Jim Lyons, assistant to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, said it’s not an understatement to characterize the federal land takeover issue as a war, one that he said the department is fighting every day.
“These are public resources and they are not to be plundered or given away,” he said. “And Sally Jewell believes that in her bones.”
Newberg admitted, though, that organizing hunters to protest legislation – especially in Washington – won’t be easy. Others in the sporting world have pointed out that convincing urban voters about the importance of public lands won’t be easy since they may not use them, or even be aware of them, despite their low-cost recreational value.
Despite some setbacks in western Legislatures, some state and federal lawmakers continue to pursue the issue. They characterize federal land management agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service as inefficient, expensive to operate and slow to act.
Many of those same federal lawmakers are unwilling to increase land managers’ budgets to help them with many of the problems that have been identified, Newberg said. He sees the problem as Congress, not the local forester.
“Right now in Congress, I can’t find anybody with interest in improving public lands,” Newberg said. “The whole ‘public lands are mismanaged’ is a straw argument.
“If we divert agency budgets, they’re an easy target. This is a plan they have set in motion.”
Newberg prefers to see public lands as one of the greatest assets the United States possesses – comparable to Egypt’s pyramids or Italy’s historic art collections. He views public lands as an inalienable right of Americans – one not subject to sale or transfer.
“I would throw out there that one of the greatest gifts that America gave the world was ... the concept of public lands,” Newberg said, and he’s willing to do whatever he can to keep them.
“It’s who we are. The connection the land provides is irreplaceable.”