HE WRITER WALLACE Stegner once described the American West's historic relationship with the federal government as "go away, and give us more money." Under the Clinton and Obama administrations, D.C.'s assertions of authority were onerous enough for some Western states, such as Utah, to start doubting that the money was worth it. The Trump years may have restored the historic pattern. Recently departed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke insisted that public lands remain under federal ownership, but he also wanted federal actions--including the feds' ample funding--to be based on Western states' wishes.
But potential fault lines between those states and the feds still exist. Consider the case of the California wildfires.
In 2017,1.4 percent of California lands burned as wildland fires raged across the state, often with devastating consequences. The fire damage of 2018 was even worse.
Nineteen million acres of California forests--almost 20 percent of the state's total land area--are owned and managed by the federal government. The fires are in significant part the product of past federal forest mismanagement.
The Forest Service policy of total fire suppression, in place for most of the 20th century, meant California's national forests contained large volumes of kindling-like small trees and underbrush. Before the Forest Service embarked on its crusade to suppress them, frequent but much smaller fires routinely removed these "excess fuels" while leaving the larger trees little affected.
Federal land management agencies remain mired in gridlock and dysfunction. This past summer, the Forest Service itself acknowledged that "catastrophic wildfires and the corresponding loss of lives, homes, and natural resources have continued to grow, partly because our treatments have been uncoordinated and not at the right scale."
One might reasonably expect California to pursue the ownership of most federal lands in the state--not national parks and national wilderness areas, but the lands needed to get its catastrophic forest fire situation under control. So far, however, the logic of the situation has been unable to overcome the state government's commitment to federal land ownership as a symbol of "progressive" rectitude.
Deeply unhappy with wider developments at the federal level, some Californians have recently been declaring an interest in the radical step of outright state secession. Taking ownership of large parts of the federally owned lands would be a...