What’s Next for America’s Public-Lands?

Public outcry may have forced Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to withdraw his “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act,” but public-lands advocates must keep the pressure on Congress to defeat other transfer proposals still circulating on Capitol Hill.

Chaffetz’s HR 621 called for selling 3.3 million acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 10 states. He submitted the bill on Jan. 24 and pulled it on Feb. 2 in the face of heated opposition from a coalescence of constituencies, ranging from hunters to the U.S. Humane Society.

The bill was an attempt to “grease the skids” and Chaffetz “got hammered for it,” Sierra Club Deputy Secretary for Federal Policy Adam Beitman said. “The lightbulb went off for a lot of people.”

But the battle has just begun, Center for Western Priorities’ (CWP) Aaron Weiss warned, calling HR 621 a trial balloon, of sorts. Filing a proposal to “dispose” of millions of BLM acres to the highest “non-federal” bidder was “a good start” for transfer proponents who “are calling for much more than that.”

Between 2013 and 2016, at least 44 Republican-sponsored bills to dilute or delete federal regulatory control on public lands, as well as to divest-and-transfer federal lands to the states, have been introduced into Congress. At the 2016 GOP National Convention in Cleveland in July, Republicans included a provision in the RNC platform calling for the transfer of ownership of federal land to states.

Despite this, then-candidate Donald Trump said on the campaign trail that he opposed turning federal lands over to states. His son, Donald Trump, Jr., an avid outdoorsman and member of Back County Hunters & Anglers (BCHA), reportedly convinced his father to select Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who opposes federal lands transfers, to be Secretary of the Interior.

Nevertheless, on the 115th Congress’s first day in session, the GOP-controlled House made 570 million of 640 million federally-administered acres essentially worthless by approving a “revenue neutral” resolution, which states “a conveyance of federal land to a state, local government, or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending or increasing outlays.” Zinke, despite his stated opposition to federal lands transfers, voted in favor of the resolution.

On March 3, after being confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke told DOI employees at their Washington, D.C., headquarters that he would not sell off federal lands. “You can hear it from my lips: We will not sell or transfer public lands,” he said.

On that same day, however, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) — the longtime leader of the divesture movement and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee — formally asked the Treasury Department to allocate $50 million “to account for the costs to transfer federal land to state or local governments.”

And so, the table is set with a confusing array of potential outcomes. More importantly, the legislative docket is crammed with divest-transfer bills. Among those now in committee: HR 622, to strip the BLM and Forest Service of law-enforcement authority; HR 232, to manage 2 million National Forest acres in Alaska solely for timber harvesting; S 273, to give states full authority over conservation plans to restore sage-grouse habitat. And just this week, the Senate endorsed a House resolution, approved Feb. 7 in a 234-186 vote, to discard the BLM’s 2.0 land-use planning rules.

Reportedly on tap: Initiatives to repeal the 1906 Antiquities Act, un-list the 29 national monuments created by the Obama Administration and dilute the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In other words, the battle has only just begun. “The decision to pull HR 621 after a huge backlash is a strong reminder that our voices matter,” said Aaron Kindle, the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Western Sportsmen’s Campaign Manager. “But this is far from the last battle we’ll see for our public lands.”

HR 621 was “a slap in the face” and public lands advocates should “take time to celebrate” its resounding smack-down, Back County Hunters & Anglers (BCHA) President/CEO Land Tawney said before advising, “Stay vigilant. These attempts to sell our public lands will continue.”

Federal land transfer proponents argue that state control of public lands would be less costly and more ecologically efficient than what they describe as disjointed, clumsy administration of public lands by domineering, distant multiple federal agencies that stymies beneficial development in layers of regulations and protracted permitting procedures without regard to local needs and concerns.

They say states would be more responsive and better suited to balancing the public interest in protecting endangered species, maintaining watersheds, managing habitat, and ensuring recreational access to public lands while also promoting oil and gas extraction, grazing and timber leases — among other commercial uses — where appropriate to generate jobs and tax revenues.

Among transfer proponents: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), American Lands Council (ALC), Americans For Prosperity, Environmental Policy Alliance, Western Energy Alliance, Center for Organizational Research and Education and, by resolution, as many as 10 Western state legislatures.

ALEC, in particular, has been a force in orchestrating the divest-and-transfer agenda. The Washington, D.C., free-market think-tank frequently drafts model legislation for conservative causes, as well as the cookie-cutter bill based on Utah’s seminal 2012 Land Transfer Act that has been introduced into at least seven Western state legislatures demanding control of federal land within their boundaries.

However, according to ALEC Director of International Relations and Federalism Karla Jones, the organization did not endorse Chaffetz’s HR 621. She said ALEC’s support for state sovereignty on federal lands does not mean it endorses “disposing” of federal land to the highest bidder.

“In principle, we would prefer to see the land conveyed to the states rather than have the same proceeds turned over to the state,” she said. “In general, ALEC would like to see control of the development turned over to states.”

But Jones and other transfer supporters do have a model policy they are showcasing in discussions with individual Congressional representatives, as well as in presentations before such pro-divesture ad hoc panels as the Federal Land Action Group, “a congressional team” founded by Reps. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to “develop a legislative framework for transferring public lands to local ownership and control.” That model is Canada’s “devolution” of federal “crown land” control to its territories.

Public-lands advocates who oppose the often shrewdly indiscernible glut of divest-and-transfer proposals vehemently dispute virtually every contention forwarded by ALEC and others. They maintain that states’ public-lands administration, by statute, emphasizes resource development as the top priority whereas federal agencies must adhere to a multi-use mandate that regards habitat conservation, wildlife stewardship, watershed integrity, historical preservation, and recreational access as primacies equal with oil and gas extraction, grazing, timber harvesting, and commercial privatization.

Even if federal agencies divested control, transfer opponents argue that states would still be required to comply with a complex and expensive matrix of federal environmental laws and inter-state water compacts, assuming financial burdens they do not have the resources to sustain without being forced to sell lands — like they already do.

Conversely, public lands advocates say, since states do not have to meet Freedom of Information Act transparency and disclosure requirements imposed on federal agencies, the public would not enjoy the same public input opportunities it now has in developing resource management plans for public lands. In other words, public access to public lands and public participation in public lands management would become … less public.

Particularly at risk: Hunters and the wildlife they pursue on public lands some transfer supporters, such as ALEC’s Jones, describe as “a vast expanse of vacant land” with little environmental value but significant mineral extraction potential.

Hundreds of organizations and businesses across the nation — including many that are long-time antagonists — have joined forces to lobbying against transfer proposals under the #KeepItPublic and #PublicLandsProud banners.

They include: The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), Outdoor Alliance, National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), Back Country Hunters and Anglers (BCHA), Simms, Trout Unlimited, Quail Forever, Sitka, Old Milwaukee, the National Wildlife Foundation, Kimber, Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation, Remington, Powderhook, the Wilderness Society, Center for Western Priorities (CWP), National Bowhunters Association, and the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest grassroots conservation organization with more than 2 million members.

“People are starting to understand what it means to lose these public lands, so they are galvanizing in opposition,” NWF’s Kindle said, noting widespread opposition to HR 621 may have stunned divesture sponsors, but they remain “undeterred” from pursuing their agenda.

Defeating transfer proposals will require overt political pressure because those pushing behind-the-scenes for federal divestment will continue to push their agenda — “‘How can we take off a different bite?” with little public notice — until exposed and “publicly shamed” the way Chaffetz was, he said.

“We’re fed up being played the fool, of being told we don’t understand what is happening here when we understand exactly what is happening here,” Kindle said. “There are just so many good reasons to keep it like it is. Point-by-point, we win easily. We have won the argument so convincingly, that we are left to believe they have ulterior purposes that are not on the best interests of the public.”

Measuring the pros and cons of transferring federal lands to state control for this analysis will compare how the variation between federal and state land-use policies translate into economic sustainability, resource management, public access, and public input, as well as if adopting Canada’s “devolution” is a feasible option.

Management imperatives: States use trust lands to generate much-needed revenues to support public schools, roads, and social services, which provide a “public trust” incentive to develop them.

For instance, the Wyoming State Constitution requires state trust lands be managed for “long-term growth in value” and “optimum, sustainable revenue production.” The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is statutorily obligated to manage lands in the most “prudent and profitable manner possible.” SITLA cannot consider multiple uses or “the public interest” unless its fiscal obligations to trust beneficiaries are met.

The impetus in federal land-use management is starkly different because U.S. government agencies, such as the BLM, Forest Service, Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service — which administer 628 million acres, 93.5 percent of federal public land — must adhere to multiple-use and sustained yield (MUSY) standards.

The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires federal land-use agencies “strike a balance among the many competing uses to which land can be put, including … recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and (uses serving) natural scenic, scientific and historical values.”

To do so, the BLM and other agencies must develop resource management plans (RMPs) after extensive public input in guiding its management of public lands “in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resources, and archaeological values.”

ALEC’s Jones said public lands advocates allege that “making money off the land” is the only reason to support state control. That is inaccurate, she said, but, “There’s nothing wrong with that. In…

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