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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Republican officials in the West advocate for federal land transfers to provide more affordable housing

An aerial view of Jackson, Wyoming.
Will Walkey
An aerial view of Jackson, Wyoming.

News brief: 

Some politicians in the Mountain West are renewing calls to transfer federal lands to state and local governments as a way to ease the affordable housing crisis. They argue that such transfers could provide much-needed space in fast-growing communities hemmed in by public lands, while critics say these proposals threaten what makes these areas appealing to begin with.

Wyoming Rep. Harriet Hageman, a Republican, recently addressed a crowd in Jackson Hole, where just 3 percent of the land can be developed. She said affordability and inequality issues will always exist there if the community remains “landlocked.”

“I'm not talking about [Grand] Teton National Park. I'm not talking about Yellowstone National Park,” Hageman said. “But there are other federal lands within this community that I think people are going to have to start looking at.”

She pointed to other parcels owned by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as possibilities. Other officials in the region, like the recently elected Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo, have singled out the Bureau of Land Management.

“The disposition of federally managed lands within and adjacent to city and county boundaries is a critical component to economic development and affordable housing,” Lombardo said in his recent State of the State address.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee has long been an advocate for less federal land ownership. He introduced a bill last year that would allow state and local governments to buy federal parcels for housing. In addition, the Western Governors' Association recently OK'd a resolution supporting federal land transfers for the purpose of increasing the housing supply. And the U.S. House GOP passed a provision last month that would make it easier to give away public lands.

Critics of these proposals say large-scale land transfers are not solutions to the Mountain West’s affordable housing crisis. Sen. Lee’s bill, for instance, lacks affordability or density requirements and allows for commercial development. It also contains land use rules that expire after 15 years.

“It's important to remember that people choose to live in the West because of our abundant public lands, and Westerners want to see these lands protected for future generations to enjoy,” said Kate Groetzinger, communications manager for the Center for Western Priorities. “With outdoor recreation booming, now is the time to invest in making our public lands more accessible, not sell them off.”

Additionally, the think tank argues that local governments already have tools at their disposal to address affordability, including changing zoning laws, disincentivizing short-term rentals and funding subsidized lodging.

The federal government owns nearly half the land in the West – including a majority of the acreage in Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Oregon.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey