The Sagebrush Rebellion is nothing new. Large parts of the country, primarily in the West, have long harbored anti-federalist attitudes and called for the sale or transfer of U.S. lands to states or private hands. But the antagonism toward collective American ownership has flared dramatically in the last five years, and a new report from the Center for American Progress points to 20 members of Congress as leading the efforts to dump federal lands.
The movement is counter to public opinion. Americans overwhelmingly support federal ownership of public lands and hold the National Park Service, Forest Service, and other agencies in high esteem. For example, 83 percent of Americans support their Congressional representatives taking a strong stand to “protect and strengthen national parks.” Additionally, 77 percent say that national parks benefit Americans a “great deal/fair amount.”
Until recently, public lands had bipartisan support, even under Republican administrations, but that, says CAP, is a “distant memory. Since 2010, Congress has been incapable of passing individual parks and wilderness bills, legislators are pressing to sell off tens of millions of acres of publicly owned lands, and laws which help protect at-risk public lands-including the Antiquities Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund-are under relentless attack.”
The center studied Congress and found that the 20 anti-public lands leaders share three main features. They are strongly affiliated with the Tea Party movement, they represent a district that is strongly partisan, and they have faced strong challenge within their party from the right. All of this has led to a shift away from the middle.
And despite pockets of anti-federalism-though Utah, a leader in the effort, is bigger than a pocket-the movement is stemming more from national efforts, not regional. “Public land grab efforts almost never rise up from local communities, Jim Caswell, BLM director under President George W. Bush, told the CAP. “They are instead galvanized by partisan politics, mainly at the national level, where the real agenda is wresting public lands from public hands and ultimately privatizing them for nonpublic uses.”
Here are the 20 members of Congress who are leading the efforts to sell or give away federal lands, as described by the Center for American Progress
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)
As chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, Rep. Bishop is responsible for developing and advancing the House of Representatives’ agenda for national parks and public lands; this position makes him the most powerful and active member of the anti-parks caucus.
Rep. Bishop is a founding member of FLAG, a vociferous advocate for the disposal of national public lands, and a defender of antigovernment activism on public lands. Speaking about the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation during the height of the takeover, he said, “I want it to end without violence, but I also understand the frustration and feelings people have working with land agencies.”
In addition to being one of the most vocal members in support of the land seizure movement, Rep. Bishop has spent more than three years drafting legislation that would facilitate the disposal of public lands in Utah. According to Rep. Bishop, his proposed legislation-known as the Public Lands Initiative-intends to create a “locally-driven” public lands law that is “rooted in the belief that conservation and economic development can coexist.” However, his draft proposal would transfer 40,000 acres of public lands to the state of Utah, create loopholes in the Wilderness Act of 1964 to essentially create pseudo-wilderness areas, accelerate oil and gas development, and fail to fully protect the Bears Ears cultural area in the state’s southeastern section.
Rep. Bishop is also a dogged opponent of the Antiquities Act and has introduced H.R. 1459 to undermine the president’s authority to establish new national monuments. In a letter to President Obama, Rep. Bishop and several other members from the Utah delegation wrote that they “do not support the use of the Antiquities Act within our community and ask that the administration withdraw any plans to do so.”
Additionally, Rep. Bishop has co-sponsored three anti-parks bills and introduced draft legislation that sought to kill the Land and Water Conservation Fund-a program commonly referred to as “America’s best parks program.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
Sen. Murkowski is chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and, like Rep. Bishop, plays a powerful role in deciding which bills will receive a hearing before Congress.
Since 2013, Sen. Murkowski has introduced four anti-parks bills or amendments and has been responsible for many of the most high-profile public lands-related votes. She introduced Senate amendment 838 to last year’s budget resolution, which was nonbinding legislation that supported the idea of selling and transferring public lands to the states. The measure passed, and many members subsequently faced serious political backlash for voting in favor of the bill. Similarly, Sen. Murkowski introduced an amendment on the 2015 Keystone XL oil pipeline bill that would have released several wilderness study areas from preservation. The amendment also had a high-profile vote, but ultimately failed.
Sen. Murkowski has also introduced two bills in the last two years that aim to block or weaken the Antiquities Act. Both bills, S. 437 and S. 2608, would require congressional approval for all new monument designations, and would require any state within 100 nautical miles of a proposed marine monument to approve its designation. Sen. Murkowski has also cosponsored another Senate bill aimed at limiting the Antiquities Act.
Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV)
Rep. Amodei is a FLAG member and introduced H.R. 1484, the Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864-which would seize Nevada public land for state control. In 2015, Rep. Amodei also introduced H.R. 488, which would cripple the Antiquities Act by blocking the extension or creation of national monuments in Nevada, unless authorized by Congress. Rep. Amodei has also cosponsored four other bills aimed at curtailing the Antiquities Act and seizing public lands. In response to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Rep. Amodei signed on to a joint statement that condemned federal officials for law-breaking, rather than condemning the actions of the armed militants.
Rep. Diane Black (R-TN)
Rep. Black is a member of FLAG and has used the group to promote her Federal Lands Freedom Act, or H.R. 866, which would give states the opportunity to take control of the permitting process on all forms of energy development on federal lands. Although the bill would exempt national parks from these seizures, it is still an extreme threat to those who use public lands for recreation or live near lands where energy production is likely to increase.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)
Rep. Chaffetz has introduced H.R. 435, the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, which would dispose of 3 million acres of shared public lands by competitive sale. Rep. Chaffetz has also cosponsored and helped draft Rep. Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative bill, which includes aspects of land seizure and would create pseudo-wilderness areas and authorize expanded oil and gas development on public lands. He has also co-sponsored three additional bills that aim to undermine the Antiquities Act or seize public land.
Most recently, Rep. Chaffetz introduced legislation that would get rid of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, and Forest Service’s law enforcement officers-a concerning development given the recent confrontations between armed extremists and federal employees on public lands. A recent CAP analysis found that the federal agencies that manage public lands already have too few rangers and law enforcement officers to adequately combat criminal activities on public lands.
Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA)
At the beginning of the year, Rep. Cook introduced H.R. 4313, which would allow states, counties, and private companies to claim thousands of miles of so-called Revised Statute 2477-or simply RS 2477-highways across national parks, monuments, wilderness areas, and other public lands. The majority of the routes that fall under the 1866 statute are not typical highways, and often include dry washes, cow paths, or seismic lines from drilling exploration, that would serve to fragment wildlife, watersheds, and recreation on public land.
Rep. Cook has also cosponsored four bills to weaken or prohibit use of the Antiquities Act. “I’ve always opposed any effort to create monuments through the President’s Antiquities Act,” said Rep. Cook in response to the desert monuments that were recently designated in California. “This time, special interest groups hijacked these monument designations and ignored the wishes of those who live closest and use the land most often.” This is despite the fact that 75 percent of Californians support President Obama in protecting these lands as national monuments.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)
Sen. Cruz introduced Senate amendment 3456 to the Bipartisan Sportsmen Act of 2014, which would have prohibited the federal government from owning more than 50 percent of the land in any state and forced any land beyond that threshold to be auctioned off or transferred to state governments. “In my view, the BLM already controls far too much land,” Cruz said in an interview with Breitbart in 2014. “We should be reducing the amount of federal land that the BLM controls and the amount of land that the federal government owns.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT)
Sen. Daines has introduced four pieces of legislation to undermine the Antiquities Act: two amendments to the 2015 Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act-S. Amdt 176 and S. Amdt 132-as well as an amendment to the FY 2016 budget and H.R. 1434, a bill that would prohibit the creation of parks or monuments by the president in Montana. Sen. Daines has also cosponsored forest management legislation that would prioritize logging over recreation and open new areas to roads and clear cutting.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC)
Rep. Duncan is a FLAG member who has cosponsored a land seizure bill which would transfer the authority of leasing, permitting, and regulating oil and natural gas on public lands to the states. He has also cosponsored two bills that would place strict limits on the Antiquities Act and one that would increase drilling on undeveloped areas of public lands-a policy change that Rep. Duncan has cited as one of his top priorities.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ)
Rep. Gosar introduced H.R. 3946, which would require an unattainable level of public input and local approval conditions for the establishment of new national monuments. The proposed bill would also prohibit new national monument designations of more than 5,000 acres and national monument designations within 18 western counties. Additionally, Rep. Gosar has cosponsored eight bills that would facilitate land seizures or undermine the Antiquities Act.
Rep. Gosar, who has a propensity for inflammatory proposals and rhetoric, recently called for the BLM to create an inventory of public lands that would be “eligible for disposal” and criticized the recent review of the federal coal leasing program, calling it “shameful.”
Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-NV)
Rep. Hardy is a member of FLAG and introduced H.R. 1445, which would prohibit the Department of the Interior from acquiring new public lands that would be managed by the National Parks Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the BLM, unless the federal budget is balanced. As a practical matter, the bill would prevent the U.S. government from being able to protect Civil War battlefields from development or guard against the building of private mansions on private inholdings within national parks.
Rep. Hardy introduced two amendments that would add loopholes to the Antiquities Act: H. Amdt. 597 to the most recent appropriations bill and H. Amdt. 345 to the defense authorization bill. He has also cosponsored three other bills that would alter the Antiquities Act, as well as one bill focused on land seizure.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID)
Rep. Labrador, a member of FLAG, introduced H.R. 2316, which would transfer the management of up to 4 million acres of national forest land to state governor-appointed committees of industry leaders. During the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, he defended the militants, calling the occupation a “peaceful takeover” in the spirit of “civil disobedience.” Rep. Labrador also introduced H.R. 900, which would require that all monument designations be approved by Congress and the state. He also co-sponsored two additional bills that threatened the Antiquities Act.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA)
Rep. LaMalfa has cosponsored five bills related to land seizure and weakening the Antiquities Act. In response to President Obama’s designation of California’s Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in 2015, LaMalfa gave a floor speech stating that the designation would “make it off limits to all Americans, even if you just want to go in for hiking or hunting.” In reality, the monument continues to be open for recreation and was strongly supported by outdoor recreation and sportsmen groups.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)
Sen. Lee has offered a slew of anti-parks bills and amendments over the past few years. These include S. 361, which would dispose of Western lands by competitive sale; S. Amdt.71 to the 2015 Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act, which would have expedited drilling on public lands; and S. 2004 that would limit the Antiquities Act. In January, Sen. Lee introduced S. Amdt. 3022, which would stop the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water conservation Fund. Sen. Lee has also authored two amendments and co-sponsored two bills that would limit the Antiquities Act and halt the creation of new monuments.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)
Rep. Lummis, a member of FLAG, signed onto a joint statement with several other lawmakers that commented on the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and condemned federal officials for law-breaking, rather than taking to task the armed militants. Rep. Lummis has also stated that she believes states are better forest managers than the federal government. However, forests under state control are not subjected to the same kind of protections as national forests and states more often prioritize logging, mining, and development over recreational access and conservation. Rep. Lummis has also cosponsored five bills with either land seizure provisions or which aim to weaken the Antiquities Act.
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM)
Rep. Pearce has cosponsored six pieces of legislation that cover land seizure, attacks to the Antiquities Act, and legislation that would prioritize logging over recreation and open new areas to roads and clear cutting. In response the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Pearce issued a joint statement that condemned the actions of federal officials while failing to decry the law-breaking actions of the armed militants.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX)
Rep. Poe introduced H.R. 1931, the American Lands Act, which seeks to force the sell-off of public land by competitive sale. The bill would indiscriminately sell off 8 percent of national forests and 8 percent of land managed by the BLM to the highest bidder every year until 2021. That means nearly 36 million acres of publicly owned land would be sold to corporate interests in one year alone. Rep. Poe also cosponsored legislation that would transfer the management of leasing, permitting, and regulating oil and natural gas from the federal government to states.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT)
Rep. Stewart, a founding member of FLAG, introduced H.R. 4579-which would turn over an estimated 6,000 miles of road right-of-ways on federal public lands in Utah for road construction and development in protected wilderness areas. He has also cosponsored five bills with land seizure provisions or restrictions to the Antiquities Act. “The federal government has been a lousy landlord for western states and we simply think the states can do it better,” Rep. Stewart said on the topic of seizing public land.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR)
During the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is located in Rep. Walden’s district, the congressman gave a long floor speech attacking federal land management policies in the west and condoned the motives underlying the actions of the armed occupiers. “Now we see the extent they will go to in order to defend what they view as their constitutional rights,” said Walden of the armed extremists.
A month before the armed occupation began, Walden released draft legislation that was intended to help solve long-running water management problems in Oregon and Northern California’s Klamath Basin. However, among other things, the bill proposed to dispose of 200,000 acres of national forest land to counties in Oregon. Additionally, Walden has cosponsored two bills that would limit the Antiquities Act, as well as forest legislation that would prioritize logging over recreation, open new areas to roads, and promote clear cutting.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK)
Rep. Young has recently introduced H.R. 3650, which would allow any state to seize control and ownership of up to 2 million acres of national forests, the size of Yellowstone National Park. If these lands are transferred to the state, they can then be auctioned off to private ownership for mining, logging, drilling, or other development. He has also introduced H.R. 330, which would require congressional and governor approval for land and marine monument designations, which would severely weaken the Antiquities Act. Additionally, Rep. Young has cosponsored another land seizure bill and forest legislation that would prioritize logging over recreation and open new areas to roads and clear cutting.
Photo by Bureau of Land Management