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.
The Pesky Budget Hitchhikers
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.
The Sneaky Sage Grouse Bill
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.
The Other Chaffetz Bill
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 Forest Fire Sale Bill
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 Zombie from Nevada
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.
The One Where the Math Doesn’t Add Up
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.
The State Bills
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.