In the five minutes it will take you to read this article, the national debt of the United States will increase by about $9.5 million. There are no easy answers to this monumental problem, but there are simple ones.
A national debt of $18 trillion and climbing, represents an unprecedented embezzlement of the liberty and opportunity of future generations. We are quite literally glutting ourselves at the expense of our children and grandchildren. What’s worse, our federal government is denying our children (and our nation) simple answers to these problems, founded in basic principles of liberty and opportunity.
What does this have to do with North Dakota? North Dakota has the liberty to manage its own lands. As a result, it has become the nation’s top economic powerhouse – growing economically at five times the national average. The recent energy boom has given North Dakota a 2.8% unemployment rate, a state budget surplus of over $1 billion and a steady demand for new workers. This economic opportunity has been a boon to not only North Dakota, but also carried the entire nation through the recession. If North Dakota were not treated more equally than the states to its west, there would be a national economic renaissance by unlocking greater health and productivity for the federally controlled public lands throughout the west.
The western states have the same terms of statehood as North Dakota for the transfer of federal title to their public lands. However, the federal government has failed to honor these same statehood terms. Instead, it has kept control over almost 50% of all lands west of North Dakota. Federal control of these lands fundamentally limits the liberty of the western states to properly care for their lands, and it stifles economic opportunity.
There are more than $150 trillion dollars in mineral value locked up in federally controlled western lands, including more recoverable oil than the rest of the world combined. Our national security, renewable energy and electronics technologies cannot function without a stable supply of rare earth minerals. Currently, 86% of the rare earth minerals for these critical technologies come from China, yet there is an abundant supply of rare earth minerals locked up in the federally controlled western lands.
Under increasing federal control, catastrophic wildfires millions of forested acres are going up in smoke every year. The cost to U.S. taxpayers? More than $1.5 billion a year in suppression costs alone. In 2013, over 93% of the acres burned in catastrophic wildfires were in western states. Of the over 4 million acres burned in those 11 western states, 73.8 % of the land burned was managed by federal agencies.
One-size-fails-all federal forest policies and endless litigation by so-called environmental groups tie the hands of local forest managers, preventing them from implementing what state foresters know: $1 spent in timber harvesting and reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire saves nearly $500 in suppression costs and related damage. The valuable timber that is destroyed each year by raging fire is not only an economic loss, but also an ecological nightmare in polluted air, scorched watersheds, and destroyed fisheries, wildlife, and habitat.
What does all this have to do with North Dakota? Upon entering the Union, new states agreed to Enabling Acts, which are essentially contracts for statehood. In the Enabling Acts, the federal government promised to dispose of ownership to public lands in the states. Despite similar promises in the Enabling Acts for states east and west of North Dakota, the federal government has failed to honor this promise to the western states.
The result? Over half of the real estate west of North Dakota is controlled by the federal government—including more than 60% of both Idaho and Alaska, close to 70% of Utah, and over 80% of the state of Nevada. In states east of this Federal Fault Line, less than 5% of the land is under federal control.
To put this inequality into perspective, let’s compare North Dakota, a state that lies east of the Federal Fault Line; and Utah, a western state deprived of the same liberty opportunity, and control over its lands.
The terms of the statehood Enabling Acts for North Dakota and Utah are nearly identical. Looking at key passages side-by-side illustrates the federal government’s illogical double standard.
While the terms of these legally binding “solemn compacts” of statehood are essentially identical—the federal government’s treatment toward these two states is not. North Dakota gave clear title for its public lands to the federal government and in due time the federal government disposed of title to these lands. Utah also gave clear title to its public land with the understanding that the federal government would honor the same promise to transfer title to these lands like it did with all states east of Colorado. Utah, like the other western states, is still waiting to be treated equally by its federal partner.
Utah has passed legislation, urging the federal government to honor the same statehood terms it has kept with states in the east. Recently, other states (including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming) have begun work on legislation to facilitate the transfer of federally controlled lands to the states.
The Utah and North Dakota Enabling Acts both contemplate that the federal government would transfer title to the public lands within their borders. The key question remains: If the federal government honored North Dakota’s Act, why not treat Utah, and the other western states, on terms of equality and unleash better care and better productivity for the benefit of the whole nation?
Surely, in America, we don’t believe that some states are more equal than others.
Ken Ivory is a Utah State Representative (District 47) and president of the American Lands Council. The Council is leading the charge for the only solution big enough – the transfer of federal lands to willing western states for better access, better health, and better productivity.