SALEM, Ore. (AP) — While the six-week armed takeover of a federal wildlife facility this year may have been conducted by a fringe group, the underlying push for states and counties to control land now possessed by the federal government already exists among local elected officials in Oregon and elsewhere.
Attention during the standoff focused on the group's belief that the federal government doesn't actually have a right to own the more than 50 percent of Oregon it controls, and on how many of the occupiers who showed up at the refuge were armed.
But advocates of state or local ownership of public lands already hold or are seeking elected office across the West, giving a level of mainstream appeal to the concept of state or local control over public lands, says Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People & Forests and a professor at the University of Montana.
"I have been much more concerned with what's happened at the state level and state legislatures" than with the occupiers, Nie said. "I've always seen that as a much more coordinated and insidious threat to federal lands."
Nie has watched the rise of calls for state ownership of federal land in states such as Utah and, more recently, Montana. Republicans this year voted to put a call for transferring federal land to local control into their national party platform. Nie believes that would be a step on the way to privatizing federal land.
"There's always been attention on federal lands management and always been complaints about what's the right balance between resource use and environmental protection," Nie said. "That is just fundamentally different than saying we're going to privatize the federal estate."
The movement in Oregon has existed at the county level, with commissioners opposing — and at times disputing the validity of — federal land ownership.
Dennis Linthicum, a former Klamath County commissioner running as a state Senate Republican candidate to represent a vast district that stretches from Klamath County through Deschutes and Crook counties, expressed sympathy for the occupiers and is a fierce critic of federal control of land, saying supporters should "take back our lands and manage them with integrity, consistency and the Constitution in mind."
He wrote in a blog post at the outset of the standoff at Malheur that the federal government's "rough-shod management" of hundreds of millions of acres "is wholly unconstitutional." Linthicum could not be reached for comment Friday.
That belief has caught on in states like Utah, where the state Legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act in 2012, which seeks to force the federal government to turn over most federal land to Utah.
In Oregon, Bud Pierce is running as a Republican for governor who, if elected, would go to court, "if necessary," to "fight to take back our public lands from Federal mismanagement and for more state and local control."
Pierce shares a similar goal with Kenneth Medenbach, one of the seven acquitted occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
They all want to get to a point where the state can generate more economic activity on land currently owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service.
"We'll get it back and we can start making beneficial use of it, sell some of it (conduct) selective logging, start mining, farming and ranching," Medenbach said. "Make beneficial use of this land."
They differ in that Medenbach and other supporters dispute the federal government's right to own the land. He said in the wake of the acquittal last week that the group set a precedent, and that he would focus on talking with county commissioners about somehow taking control of federal land. If not, he said, there may be more occupations in the future.
He might find supporters on the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners, which makes $1,000 annual donations from its budget to the American Lands Council, a Utah-based nonprofit pushing for state ownership of federal land, according to Commissioner Paul Castilleja.
"The whole problem is that for the last 30 years there has been no management of the forest," said Castilleja, who attended last month's American Lands Council meeting in Salt Lake City. He said he wants to see more logging and thinning of federal forests. "It's not only unfair, it's not working. Simple as that."
Pierce, meanwhile, said he's not advocating for the state to take over federal land. He instead prefers keeping federal land in federal ownership, but getting to a point where the state is in charge of managing it to increase economic activity, he said.
"There are some people that are real radical. I think most of us believe in the rule of law," he said. "It's well-established in law that the federal government's current ownership of state lands is by law. They own it. The question is where do we go from here?"
He said it's not clear how to move forward on his idea of state management. Despite saying he might go to court to fight for it, Pierce said there are open questions about how the state would win.
"That's the issue. How do we unlock it? How do we get it so we can use the resources in a responsible way? Do (timber) harvesting that's sustainable and get some economic value," he said.
Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in California, argues states would have a difficult time managing the huge expanses of land managed by the federal government.
"It's a fool's errand," Miller said.
What's more, Miller said, court rulings, state constitutions and Western attorneys general uphold the federal government's right to own and manage lands.
"You have to look at the state constitutions, which indicate that when they came into the union that the lands they did not receive would . remain federally owned," Miller said. "Oregon and Nevada in particular have quite explicit language about that."
In 1995, after a string of attempts by state and local governments starting in the 1970s, residents in Union and Wallowa counties proposed an initiative challenging the federal authority to control land in those counties. The state Attorney General's Office opined at the time that Oregon agreed upon gaining statehood to the federal government's authority over 52 percent of the land in the new state.
"The occupiers, who I would classify as domestic terrorists, do not understand the Constitution of the United States," said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield. "They say 'Give the land back to the states.' I point out the land never belonged to the states."
DeFazio and U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, joined with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, to propose bills in recent years that would boost logging on 45 percent of new growth in the Western Oregon federal timberland previously owned by the Oregon and California Railroad. Management would be overseen by a public trust managed by state officials appointed by the governor.
The bill has failed to gain traction in the Senate, and DeFazio has had to settle for smaller moves in Congress.
Medenbach, meanwhile, has his own game plan.
"Next is getting to our county commissioners and starting to say, hey, we need to take this land back," said Medenbach, one of the occupiers, who lives in northern Klamath County. "We set a precedent here."
His next move is to talk with county commissioners and any state legislator who will listen to him, including Linthicum, he said.