A Western rancher who has his federal grazing rights restricted or removed doesn’t just lose a few cows. He loses a multi-generational investment, a profession, and a legacy to pass on to his children.

An elderly hunter or trail rider who sees motorized access eliminated from national forest land doesn’t just lose an elk or a nice camping trip. She loses family bonding and recreational opportunities that have been passed down from generation to generation.

And a state that becomes more and more dependent on federal aid - aid that's being increasingly squeezed between national entitlement and debt obligations - isn't just losing tax dollars on land owned and operated by bureaucrats in Washington. It's losing the right to decide how to best educate its children, how to provide for public safety, and how to meet its citizens' needs.

Self-determination and self-government are what’s really at stake in the federal lands debate picking up steam in the West. This isn’t about dollars and cents, at least not for those with the most to lose. It’s about basic fairness and preserving the viability and values of our rural production economy.

We can see this by simply noting who's manning the barricades against overreaching and often counterproductive federal policies. Ranchers in Nevada are riding to Bureau of Land Management district offices in protest of needless grazing restrictions. ATV riders in Utah are risking arrest by protesting closures on trails they've enjoyed for generations. County commissioners in New Mexico are threatening to dismantle new federal roadblocks that cut off ranchers' cattle from needed - and previously accessible - water.

The list goes on and will only get longer as more people face losing their livelihoods and lifestyles to the whims of radical environmental groups who see rural families as collateral damage in appeals to often well-meaning but ill-informed urban audiences.

There’s an alternative to preservation by confiscation. Recreational and economic uses can live side by side on most Western lands. And in fact they have for decades.

But federal land managers have been increasingly captured by environmental special interests that insist on seeing land use in terms of winners and losers. It’s the same mentality that embraces zero-sum economics – that one person’s gain must be explained by another’s loss. Ironically, the single land use to which that zero-sum mindset applies is also the one only they are advocating: Fence the land off so just the young, healthy and wealthy can enjoy it.

We in the West know land uses are not zero-sum. The economic pie can grow to everyone’s benefit, and most public lands can be – and were meant to be – put to multiple, often complementary uses. Hunters use logging roads. Sage grouse use grazing lands. Energy development creates infrastructure, which in turn makes land more accessible to other users. And people who have a stake in the land are the best managers and conservationists. States get this, and that’s why they manage their own lands more responsibly and profitably than the federal government.

National parks, wilderness areas, and other special lands are the exception, and they should stay that way. But they make up a small fraction of the federal estate, generally less than 15 percent of all federal lands within a state. Non-park or wilderness federal lands run between 20 million and about 30 million acres in most Western states. That's an area about the size of Virginia - per state.

Those federal lands designated for multiple use would, if turned over to the states, restore a balance between preservation and the responsible economic uses that put food on our tables, power our industries, provide building materials and heat for our homes, and fuel our vehicles.

America needs the natural resources on and under those lands, and the families that make up our rural production economy want to provide them in a responsible and sustainable way. But their voices will never equal the multitude of wealthy environmental groups and D.C. lobbyists whose livelihoods depend on persuading federal bureaucrats to fence those lands off.

Never mind about the money. Never mind about energy independence. Never mind about a safe and cheap food supply. We’re talking about preserving a way of life.

A rural production economy that values hard work, family and community is at risk because its members can’t be proper stewards of the lands that sustain them and the entire nation. Western states can ensure that stewardship and lessen their dependence on Washington if we give them control of the lands within their borders.

Fairness demands it. And the nation would be better off for it.

Carl Graham is Director of Sutherland Institute's Coalition for Self-Government in the West. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.