Many Californians woke up the night after the presidential election thinking 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, intensive recreational use and more development on federal land in the state.
Much of the rest of the West, moreover, might support this cause. In recent years, Utah has been actively seeking a large-scale transfer of federal lands. During the Obama years, Utah’s government 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—especially 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. 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. Let residents of other Western states decide as well.
Robert H. Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. He is a professor in the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland and, from 1975 to 1993, worked for eight secretaries of the Interior Department.