“If California wants to secede, let it go”

Interesting viewpoint from High Country News….


If California wants to secede, let it go

By Robert H. Nelson/Writers on the Range

Many Californians woke up the night after the presidential election thinking that they were living in a different country. A few felt so alienated that they publicly raised the possibility of seceding from the United States.

There is no constitutional way, however, to do this. But there is a less radical step that would amount to a limited secession and would require only an act of Congress. Forty-five percent of the land in California is administered by the federal government — including 20 percent of the state in national forests and 15 percent under the Bureau of Land Management. Rather than outright secession, California could try to assert full state sovereignty over all this land.

Until Nov. 8, California wouldn’t have cared about this, but with the prospect of a Donald Trump administration soon managing almost half the land in the state, Californians may want to rethink their traditional stance. Otherwise, they are likely to face more oil and gas drilling, increased timber harvesting and intensive recreational use and development on federal land in the state.

Much of the rest of the West, moreover, might support their cause. In recent years, Utah has been actively seeking a large-scale transfer of federal lands. During the Obama years, Utah’s government has deeply resented the imposition of out-of-state values on the 65 percent of the state that is federally owned — just as California may now come to resent the outside imposition of new land management practices by a Trump administration.

Utah, ironically, may now see a comprehensive land transfer as less urgent. That has happened before: The election of President Reagan in 1980 took the steam out of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Utah and elsewhere in the West. In retrospect, however, that proved to be shortsighted, as future administrations reversed course and asserted even more authority over Western lands.

If California were to lead the charge, and with Trump as president, fundamental changes in the federal ownership of land in the West might become more politically feasible than ever before. There are additional strong arguments, moreover, for a transfer of federal lands (excluding national parks and military facilities) in the West to the states today. Over the region as a whole, the federal government owns almost 50 percent of the land, and higher percentages in many rural areas. When Washington, D.C., imposes policies and values that conflict with the majority views of the residents of whole states, the federal government, in effect, takes on the role of an occupying force. It may not be traditional colonialism, but there are resemblances.

Defenders of federal land management argue that the public lands belong to all Americans. Although advocates of a federal land transfer promise to keep the lands in state ownership, many Westerners fear that the states might privatize the lands outright or administer them for narrowly private interests. The implicit assumption in this is that there are core national values that should govern public-land management in all the Western states and that the federal government is best placed to advance these values. But the reality is that Americans are today deeply divided on many fundamental value questions — and these divisions are often geographically based.

Since at least the 1990s, many Westerners have become convinced that the management of federal lands in the West is dysfunctional no matter what party is in power. This should come as no surprise, since much of Washington itself is dysfunctional.

So I propose the following. Congress should enact a law allowing each state to call a referendum on the question: Do you want the federal government to transfer federal lands in your state (excluding national parks and military lands) to state ownership? If the vote is affirmative, a transfer would follow automatically. You might call it a Scotland solution, adapted to American circumstances.

California could pursue its preservationist values, while Utah could allow wider access to its new lands. With public-land management decentralized to the state level, where there would be greater basic agreement on ends and means, it might finally be possible to overcome the political paralysis of the current federal land management system centered in Washington.

So I say, let Californians decide if they want to secede, at least in this partial way, and the residents of other Western states as well.
Robert H. Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor in the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland, and from 1975 to 1993, worked for eight different secretaries of the Interior Department.




14 thoughts on ““If California wants to secede, let it go””

  1. An interesting idea.

    Federal lands are supposed to be for the benefit for all American citizens – fair enough.

    But, after looking at the recent election and, especially the map of blue states and red states, it seems that the blue states are highly urbanized while the red states are more rural. It has long appeared to me that urbanites are very dependent on government services – traffic lights, streets, bridges, parks, garbage disposal, water, street lights, social services, etc. – as they go about their daily lives. Rural folks seem more independent of government services in their daily lives; they mostly go out to their farms, mines, forests, etc. as they go about their lives.

    Thus, it seems as though the urban states have a very large (I hesitate to use a Trump-ism and say “huge”!) influence over lands in the rural states – maybe even to the detriment of those rural states. In other words, I’d suggest federal lands are more for the benefit of the urban American and their desires for those lands outweigh the desires of those who live on or adjacent to those public lands. As this Writer on the Range says, we are a geographically divided nation; his noting the federal government as an “occupying force” is very interesting.

    All this takes us back to a simple fact; everything we use in our daily lives is extracted from the environment. If people do not understand that simple fact, it becomes very easy to make poor land management decisions as we “save” our environment by importing our needs as we export the costs of our consumption. I’m not convinced the great preponderance of urbanites understand this as they’ve become disconnected with the rural world and where things come from. And that raises the question of ethics. It is not a question of we use the land – it is a question of how.

    It will be interesting to see how this “secession” turns out and how the Sagebrush Rebellion seems to ebb and flow.

    [Trump garnered most of his electoral college votes in the more rural states while Clinton got most of her electoral college votes in the more urbanized states. Just as every state – regardless of their size or population – has two senators, maybe the electoral college helps to prevent our urban centers from exerting undue dominance of rural areas.]

    • Yeah, your claim here that rural residents are somehow pure and have no need of government is facially ridiculous. Any objective economic analysis demonstrates that rural areas are subsidized by urban areas, particularly in terms of government services, and are just as reliant on them. Roads, schools, policing, fire protection, utilities and communications infrastructure, medical care, general government services — all of these are far more expensive to provide in rural areas than urban areas, per capita, because of the lack of density.

      “Rural folks seem more independent of government services in their daily lives; they mostly go out to their farms, mines, forests, etc. as they go about their lives.”

      How do they get to their farm, mine or forest? Right, they drive on a public highway built and maintained with taxpayer dollars. If they get into a car accident on that public highway, tax-supported fire/rescue and police services will respond, and take them to a hospital that is heavily reliant on government funding (most small rural hospitals are designated Critical Access Hospitals, which means they get more funding per capita from Medicare than urban hospitals.) They go to work in that mine and put on safety equipment required by, and follow procedures developed by, MSHA and OSHA to minimize the risk that they’ll die in that mine from an accident or later from diseases related to their mining work, as thousands of miners commonly did in the days before stringent government regulation. When they go on that farm, they’re probably planting crops subsidized by the federal government, and maybe developed by federally-funded crop research by ARS or university scientists. They spray on pesticides that have been tested and approved to not pose an undue risk to their health.

      When they drive to Wal-Mart to buy things, that Wal-Mart is full of goods shipped from across the country or around the world, using (yet again) public roads depending on taxpayer dollars and railroads that would not have ever existed absent massive government subsidies for their construction. That person knows that the microwave oven they buy at that Wal-Mart won’t kill them with dangerous radiation because the microwave oven has been certified to meet federal government safety standards. They can buy meat at that Wal-Mart with confidence, knowing it was produced in a facility inspected and certified to uphold cleanliness and health standards so the chance of contracting disease is minimized.

      When they go home and turn on the lights, they’re using electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority, a Bureau of Reclamation dam or maybe connected to power lines built with subsidies from the Rural Electrification Act.

      Social services? You think social services aren’t used by rural people? Are you joking? The opiate addiction epidemic is centered in rural areas. Rural states have nearly twice the per-capita rate of babies born opiate-addicted as urban states. Health care and social services in those areas are stretched to the breaking point. https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/rural-monitor/opioid-epidemic/

      Nobody who lives in a modern, complex Western nation is “independent of government services.” Nobody.

      • Oh yes, of the seven states with the most people on food stamps, six of them are primarily or significantly rural:

        1. Mississippi
        Number of food stamp recipients: 656,871
        Percentage of the state’s population on food stamps: 21.94%

        3. New Mexico
        Number of food stamp recipients: 430,622
        Percentage of the state’s population on food stamps: 20.65%

        4. Oregon
        Number of food stamp recipients: 802,190
        Percentage of the state’s population on food stamps: 20.21%

        5. Tennessee
        Number of food stamp recipients: Just over 1.31 million
        Percentage of the state’s population on food stamps: 20.04%

        6. West Virginia
        Number of food stamp recipients: 362,501
        Percentage of the state’s population on food stamps: 19.59%

        7. Louisiana
        Number of food stamp recipients: 877,340
        Percentage of the state’s population on food stamps: 18.87%


        So yeah, please do not come here and try to claim that “rural people” are pure and perfect and that it’s all those awful city people who are sucking up all the tax dollars and destroying America, or whatever it is your point was supposed to be. Because that’s just literally factually false.

        • Boom. Thanks for the information and speaking out Travis. I too grow a little tired of some people on this blog making broad claims about both folks who live in urban areas and those who live in rural areas.

  2. I think it is a terrible idea.
    Most thinking done by the state is very short sighted. Like, “how do we pay for our pension fund this budget year”. I don’t think they would hesitate to sell off our pubic lands to large multinational corporations.
    The state’s couldn’t afford to manage them otherwise. And as far as turning the one’s close to urban areas into “wilderness”, we know where the “do nothing” forest management will get us, waste of resource, degradation of the environment, and bankrupted rural communities.
    It is essential we learn how to manage our public land to the benefit of the Nation and our future generations.
    That includes harvesting resources and protecting the environment. Just like we changed our management objectives with the Northwest Forest Plan, it is time to change them again.
    Our public lands and public access to them, their beauty and their resources, is one of the things that makes this country great.
    Maybe we feel that more in the West where we are surrounded by public lands.

    • Robert

      Evidenced by the current state of our federal forests, I’m not sure that the states would be any more short term thinking than the states. As long as the states are committed to long term sustainability, compliance with best management practices and all laws, what difference does it make who manages them? Oh! But it does matter!

      My view from the US South is that the western states do more to manage their forests than the feds do in the west. So if the states are more practical in terms of managing their forests for sustainability by prioritizing based on significance of proposed actions on the goals for the forest rather than on trying to meet every potential concern (regardless of its significance) of an uniformed public then, in that case, the state would be my choice.

      See Steve Wilent’s comment below.

      National ashtrays do not make a good case for federal forest management. Applying sound, sustainable forest management to help pay for a state’s pension or other needs is a better forest protection option than the fed’s attempt to preserve rather than protect forests.

      A Brit once wrote:
      “A forest that pays
      Is a forest that stays”

  3. It would be an unusually foolish Congress that would disenfranchise its constituents by taking away the rights of those constituents to have a say in the management or ownership of their lands and wildlife. Especially when the majority of those constituents have always favored federal lands and species protection. Unfortunately we have a minority government (an appointed president, a Senate biased towards small states, and a House with a Republican majority only because of gerrymandered districts) that is no longer accountable to the views of the majority. And even if they were accountable, some might find that political suicide is worth it because, unlike many acts of Congress, divesting public lands would be an irreversible victory for them. We won’t get them back.

    • I reckon the chances of a massive land transfer — or any significant transfer — of lands to a state are about zero. I’d give secession by California a slightly higher chance of occurring.

      • Kind of funny that California several times over the years has denied certain northern counties the right to succeed from California in order to form a new state.

        Logic makes life so difficult. So why not ignore it? 🙁

  4. I’m reminded that some of Oregon’s state forest lands are mandated to provide school funding. The management of these lands have been so hamstrung of late that they not only have not been providing funding, they’ve been operating at a deficit; i.e., pulling money out of the schools. In response, the state has chosen to sell off some parcels. The new (private) owners of these parcels are now back in court because anti-forestry organizations are trying to prevent the owners from using their lands! Go figure.

  5. I find interesting the idea that the states would not be able to “afford” to manage ownership of Federal lands. That is because the states are held accountable for their financial situation, just like any business. Sadly the federal government isn’t held to the same standard.


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