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If you were shocked and angered earlier this year by a bill to dispose of public lands, then you should know about these less blatant—but similarly dangerous—legislative moves
[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published February 7, 2017 with ten legislative threats—one of which has become a reality for 245 million acres of Bureau of Management Lands. The post below has been updated as of March 29, 2017 with the latest on these developments and the newest threats to our public lands legacy.]
In February, sportsmen flooded the office of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) with phone calls, letters, tweets, and Facebook messages about his unpopular and dangerous public lands bill, H.R. 621. Shortly after, he dropped the legislation that would have enabled the sale of 3.3 million acres of public lands.
We celebrated. We were reminded that our voices have power. Then, we went back to work.
Here’s the thing: The tug-of-war between Americans who are proud to have 640 million acres of public lands as their birthright and those who seek to undermine these lands has never been tied to one individual bill, state, or lawmaker—it’s a longstanding ideological battle that puts conservation, access, and our hunting and fishing traditions on the line.
And, because D.C. politics are hardly ever as simple as black and white, the intent to transfer or sell public lands isn’t always explicitly stated in a bill’s title. To add to this confusion, sometimes a “win” for us is when nothing happens at all—a bill is introduced, never receives a hearing or co-sponsors, and gets swept from the docket at the end of that Congress. H.R. 621 languished in obscurity in this way last year, and Chaffetz probably wasn’t prepared for the backlash from public lands advocates when he reintroduced identical legislation in 2017.
Well, it’s a new day, and sportsmen are watching. Keep your eye on these legislative actions that would dismantle our public lands heritage, piece by piece.
We expect that the Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution will pick up legislative riders like fleece picks up burrs. Riders are policy priorities tacked onto larger must-pass legislation and, coupled with bills that help guide government spending, they could have scary implications for public lands and habitat. Pretty much anything is fair game, but we’re keeping an eye out for language that undercuts federal plans to benefit sage grouse and the broader sagebrush ecosystem. Because stripping federal authority over management of national public lands is a big ol’ slippery slope.
In fact, Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) has already introduced legislation (S. 273) that would give state officials full authority over state and federal conservation plans to restore sage-grouse habitat. This might sound mild, but don’t be fooled—transferring control of management plans is a back door to transferring control of the land itself. This would be “an unprecedented shift of management responsibility that erodes the implementation of bedrock conservation statutes,” according to Ed Arnett, our senior scientist. Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) introduced a near-identical bill last year.
In addition to the bill he withdrew*, Rep. Chaffetz also introduced the “Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act” (H.R. 622) as a measure to pull funding for federal public-land law enforcement. This bill is still alive in Congress and has six co-sponsors.
*Many of you have asked why it appears that H.R. 621 is still alive in congressional records and online, even though Chaffetz requested that the bill be withdrawn. Well, the committee chair is the one who officially files the forms to withdraw legislation and strike it from the books—and nobody likes doing paperwork. It’s typical for bills to collect dust in committee until the end of the congressional year.
The “State National Forest Management Act of 2017” (H.R. 232), introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), would take two million acres of National Forest System land away from Americans to be managed solely for timber production (read: short-term profit.) Just a friendly reminder that this could transfer management of all of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest to the state. This language was originally introduced in 2016 and made it the next step to a committee hearing, despite sportsmen’s outcry. The 114th Congress wrapped without seeing that bill move any further, but now it’s back for round two.
The “Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864 Act,” introduced last Congress by Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), was an explicit attempt to transfer federal public lands in Nevada to state ownership—at which point public access could be barred. While we haven’t seen this language reappear verbatim, Amodei has introduced two public lands bills so far. The Small Tracts Conveyance Act (H.R. 1106) would allow for the sale of some federal public lands in Nevada to private landowners or other entities, and the Nevada Land Sovereignty Act (H.R. 243) prohibits the expansion or establishment of national monuments in Nevada.
Last year, the “Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act” passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, but didn’t make it to a floor vote. It never should have made it that far. Introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), the bill would have given management authority for large segments of our national forests to “advisory committees”—no previous professional experience in forest management would be required on these committees. Conservation and access would surely be an afterthought to generating revenue, but the financial burden of wildfire management would still be on the American taxpayer. That’s why we’ll be watching for something similar to emerge.
Bills at the federal level aren’t the only place we see shots fired at public lands. There are clear examples of state legislators easing the skids for public land transfer in Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Even in Missouri, a resolution encouraging transfer of Western federal lands to the states is making its way through the state legislature.
It’s easy to get complacent as long as these threats never really come to a head. But consider what’s already been lost this year.
Alarmingly, Congress has already voted to roll back public involvement in public land management by blocking the Bureau of Land Management’s new planning rule through a Congressional Review Act resolution of disapproval. The resolution, which could eliminate the BLM’s ability to provide similar benefits in a planning rule ever again, was signed into law by President Trump on March 27, 2017. Planning 2.0 was the result of more than two years of collaborative work, and overturning it was a gut-punch to sportsmen who celebrated conservation benefits for big game migration corridors and backcountry habitats.
And, in Oregon, a two-to-one vote by the State Land Board is likely to seal the fate of the Elliott State Forest, which is much beloved for its recreation opportunities, including hunting and fishing, but has been a drag on the state budget sheet. Federal public lands aren’t managed for profit, but they would be in the hands of the states. Now, it’s likely that the Elliott will be sold. This could make it the poster child for what could happen to America’s public lands if land transfer proponents get what they want.
It’s also a reminder of why we’re fighting tooth and nail to keep public lands public. Give them an inch and they’ll take millions of acres. Let your elected officials know that our public lands are not for sale.
News for Immediate Release
Feb. 7, 2017
Contact: Kristyn Brady, 617-501-6352, firstname.lastname@example.org
Representatives would revert BLM land-use planning back to an ineffective and outdated rule and prevent positive changes from being included in future revisions
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Using an obscure legislative process, a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the BLM’s new land-use planning rule, known as Planning 2.0, and roll back the additional opportunities the rule affords the public to voice concerns about land management decisions on 245 million acres. The Senate is expected to vote on a similar resolution next week.
Nineteen sportsmen’s groups, conservation organizations, outdoor recreation trade associations, and businesses that rely on public lands sent a letter to congressional leadership this week opposing the move to roll back Planning 2.0 through the Congressional Review Act, a little-known law that enables Congress to roll back regulations within 60 legislative days of their enactment. Once repealed through this process, a substantially similar rule cannot be rewritten.
The letter urges lawmakers to allow the incoming Secretary of the Interior a chance to address concerns with the new rule, rather than scrap it altogether.
“A Congressional Review Act repeal of the BLM planning rule would eliminate Planning 2.0, revert BLM planning to a problematic decades-old planning process, and likely eliminate the BLM’s authority to revise its planning regulations ever again in the future,” says Joel Webster, director of Western lands with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This aggressive path benefits no one. We urge Congress to take a different course and address remaining concerns by working collaboratively with the new Secretary of the Interior.”
Many groups are frustrated by the potential lost momentum for improvements that would benefit wildlife habitat along migration corridors and in seasonal ranges. New technology has revealed critical data on these important areas, which are not considered under the old planning rule, which was largely developed in 1983.
“Under the spirit of Planning 2.0, improvements are already being made to the way we conserve once overlooked habitat that elk, mule deer, and other big game animals rely on, even if it’s just for a portion of their journey,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Increased coordination under the rule will only mean that the best possible science is used to our advantage, not ignored.”
Outdoor recreation businesses deserve better, but sportsmen and women will not stay quiet on this issue, says Ben Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. “If recent public outcry against bad public land policy proves anything, it’s that we’ll be heard either way—we’d just rather be part of the democratic process.”
To move forward for conservation, resistance can’t be the only tactic
Add “alternative facts,” fake news, and #resistance to the major trust issues that Americans have with government, and it’s easy to see why D.C. politics is one big gray area.
An example: Rep. Ryan Zinke has been clear that he cares deeply about public lands and funding for outdoor recreation access, especially as a lifelong hunter, and he is absolutely opposed to selling off or transferring national public lands to individual states. He’s on record supporting the expansion of our public lands—and access to them—by fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. We based much of our support for Zinke as Secretary of the Interior on his track record of crossing party lines to vote for support of public lands.
Then, he didn’t. He voted along party lines on a House rules package that, among dozens of other proposed changes unrelated to conservation, would devalue federal public lands being considered for sale or transfer. The vote was procedural, and there is no indication that this action will be taken up by the Senate, but many began calling for Zinke’s head.
Critics ask how we can sit back and support him now. We’ve also been criticized for being optimistic about the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, an avid quail hunter who instituted statewide conservation plans and funding programs during his tenure as Governor of Georgia. No, we don’t think that prayers for rain are good agricultural policy, but there’s more good than bad in his track record.
They won’t side with us on every issue, but we’d like to see true sportsmen (ones with actual conservation accomplishments) lead the agencies that are responsible for conservation in our country. There are many difficult choices ahead, and we want the opportunity to be heard by those who have walked in our boots and share many of our values.
I don’t believe that Congressman Zinke’s actions were nefarious in that vote. But I can understand why hunters and anglers are frustrated with the games we see in Congress. Games like pretending that sage grouse conservation will undermine national defense readiness. Games like using obscure congressional authorities to reduce public input on land management decisions. Games like silencing scientists on climate change, yet decrying policies made by the last administration based on politics—instead of science.
It’s our job to see through the smoke screens, but our work will never be as simple as black and white.As sportsmen, we have an opportunity to hold a middle ground and be reasonable in a time of upheaval Click To Tweet
We need to know how to work with D.C. insiders in order to reach and educate the decision makers who hold your hunting and fishing opportunities in their hands. It is incumbent on us to make sure sportsmen and women are heard by the new administration and Congress, and we can do this better in their offices than we can shouting outside their windows. As sportsmen, we have an opportunity to hold a middle ground and be reasonable in a time of upheaval and extreme resistance.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t go on the defensive when we need to. That’s why we’ve come out in opposition to a congressional attempt to roll back your say in public lands management. That’s why we continue to provide you with opportunities to oppose public land transfer proposals in your state and in Washington. And as long as sportsmen and women put their trust in us, we’ll always be transparent about our actions.
We can be optimistic and remain vigilant. We can shake hands and shake our fists. It’s not a political game—it’s our duty.
Lawmakers pursue obscure legislative process for blocking a rule created to give the public more say in management plans for 245 million acres of BLM public lands
Sportsmen, landowners, and former Bureau of Land Management employees strongly criticized a move by senators and representatives to overturn the BLM’s revised land-use planning rule, known as Planning 2.0. Using the obscure and rarely used Congressional Review Act, federal decision makers took a first step toward repealing the new rule and rolling back opportunities for the public to have more say in land management decisions.
In a statement, Senate co-sponsors of a Congressional Review Act resolution cite bad information as motivation to revoke the rule, namely that the final rule fails to prioritize feedback from all stakeholders, including local governments. However, if lawmakers are successful, the BLM would continue using outdated guidelines for land-use planning established in 1983, which keep the public in the dark until very late in the planning process.
“It has been publicly recognized by county commissioners and conservation districts that the BLM took meaningful steps between the draft and final planning rules to accommodate requests from local governments and the public in reworking land-use planning,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Now, Congress is taking steps to reduce agency transparency and limit the public’s ability to have a say in how their public lands are managed. While a few concerns might remain, Congress is going about this the wrong way.”
The Congressional Review Act is a little-known law that enables Congress to roll back regulations within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The BLM planning rule, while under development since 2014, was finalized in December 2016, so it falls within the window of eligibility for repeal by the CRA. The process has only been successful once.
“The Western Landowners Alliance supports the BLM’s efforts in updating planning to meet today’s needs in the West,” says Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance. “There are opportunities for improvement, but not to the detriment of eliminating all the good progress that has been made to date. We believe working through the Secretary of Interior is the best way to achieve our goals and constructively address any remaining concerns with the rule.”
Most disturbingly, once a rule is overturned through the CRA, no new rule that is “substantially the same” can be developed.
“A Congressional Review Act repeal would eliminate Planning 2.0 and likely eliminate the BLM’s authority to revise their planning regulations ever again in the future,” says Jesse Juen, president of the Public Lands Foundation and a longtime BLM employee. “Instead of stripping the incoming Secretary of the Interior of his authority before he takes office, lawmakers should work with the new administration to make refinements to a planning process that many stakeholders championed.”
Hunters and anglers in Western states can click here to write their lawmakers and urge them to let Planning 2.0 stand.
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