A man who was elected to the House of Representatives with just 209,000 votes is attempting to get rid of 3.368 million acres of federal lands that belong to all 325 million Americans. Jason Chaffetz, a congressman from Utah’s 3rd District, has introduced a series of bills that would permanently reshape federal lands and is doing so with a flamboyant disregard for public sentiment.
“The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities,” wrote Chaffetz in the press release for H.R. 621. “These lands have been deemed to have no purpose to taxpayers.”
Disposal? Excess? No purpose?
“What’s worthless to allies of the fossil fuel industry for all except oil and gas extraction has irreplaceable value to the American people for hiking, hunting, camping, fishing and countless other pastimes that Teddy Roosevelt first acknowledged were central to the strength and well-being of this nation,” said Alan Rowsome of The Wilderness Society. “Trump’s allies in Washington laid the tracks for this land takeover scheme the moment they started their legislative session, and now they’re driving a locomotive over the American people and our wild natural heritage.”
Chaffetz’s bill would dump lands the equivalent of the size of Connecticut into state and private hands. States affected are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Chaffetz has not filed the full text of the bill with congress.gov or released maps showing the lands in question.
The outdoor recreation industry has been wrestling with these threats—during the recent Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, there was growing sentiment to move the show to Colorado, as Utah has been antagonistic to outdoor recreation. Hunting and fishing groups, which understand all too well how quickly access can be lost when state and and private owners take control, have been vocal, too.
“Mr. Chaffetz, you’ve kicked the hornet’s nest and the army is amassing,” said Land Tawny, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in a Facebook Live video. “And I will put my money on the people every single time. The only thing you can do to make this right is to pull those bills back.”
Outdoor recreation brings an estimated $646 billion to the U.S. economy annually, with 6.1 million direct jobs. Untrammeled wild lands are critically important to the economic health of the outdoor industry, not to mention the health of ecosystems and the space needed for wildlife. Of the 64.2 million acres given to 11 Western states upon joining the union, 25.4 have been sold to private hands. “If history is any indication,” writes sportsmansaccess.org, “many of these lands will be closed to the public or sold off to the states.
It’s uncertain what kind of response will await the land purge if it gets through the House. Donald Trump’s statements on public lands have been, um, ambiguous, though his pick for Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has been opposed to giving federal lands to states and resigned from the GOP platform committee last summer in protest over the issue.
The challenge facing states if they were to manage the lands themselves are daunting. Fire-fighting alone cost the feds $1.7 billion in 2015.
In a piece published yesterday, The New Yorker noted, “There are plenty of grounds for civil disagreement over the management of public lands. But the argument for large-scale federal-land disposal makes little legal, financial, or practical sense. The government’s constitutional right to own and hold property has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The fees that federal agencies charge for grazing, mining, and other extractive activities are heavily subsidized, and would almost certainly rise were the land transferred to states or counties. The job of managing so many millions of acres would also place a heavy burden on state and local governments—two hundred and eighty million dollars a year just in Utah, according to a 2014 study by economists from three of the state’s universities. In addition, a mass land transfer would likely lead to environmental disaster, much as unregulated grazing of the Western range in the early nineteen-hundreds caused chronic erosion and helped create the Dust Bowl.”
Western voters overwhelmingly support more protection for public lands, not less. A survey released yesterday, the Conservation in the West Poll, showed overwhelming support for conservation, with 58 percent saying they were against giving federal lands to states. Only in Utah was there less than majority support for that idea.
• 94 percent support improving infrastructure in national parks
• 80 percent support allowing more solar energy production on public lands
• 82 percent want better access for hikers, hunters, and anglers
• 79 percent support promoting the outdoor economy
• 67 percent want the process of permitting for recreation streamlined
In energy matters, there was far less support:
• 34 percent want oil and gas companies to drill in new areas of public lands
• 33 percent want more coal mining on public lands
The poll was conducted in late December and early January.
Chaffetz also introduced a bill that would strip law enforcement authority from the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, so that if a crime was committed on USFS or BLM lands, the local sheriff would get the call. The BLM alone manages 700 million acres of land. You’re gonna need a bigger sheriff.
That’s not all. The House recently passed a bill that included a provision from Utah Rep. Rob Bishop that values federal public lands at zero dollars—an accounting trick that would make it easier to hand U.S. lands to states.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, urged fellow Democrats to oppose the measure.
“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd,” Grijalva said. “This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”
It gets worse. Or if not worse, continues a downward trend. Like a dorky kid begging to be invited to the party, Utah State Representative Mike Noel has unabashedly been making his case to become the head of the Bureau of Land Management in the Trump administration, a move that appalls environmentalists, conservationists, and the outdoor industry.
Peter Metcalf, the founder of Black Diamond and an outspoken critic of Utah’s efforts to gut federal lands, told the Salt Lake Tribune, “The BLM manages some of the America’s most spectacular and iconic landscapes, landscapes that are integral to outdoor recreation, sportsmen, biodiversity, and native Americans’ and America’s high quality of life. We need a BLM leader aligned with this mission, one who recognizes the role these well-stewarded landscapes play in the vibrancy of one of America’s most important and sustainable economic sector.
“Mike Noel is the opposite.”
Former BLM director Pat Shea said, “It would be like having an atheist teach Sunday school. He does not believe in the fundamental tenets of [the agency]. As with many of Trump’s appointments, they’re more interested in dismantling things than making them work.”
Want more? Of course not, but…
The Utah State House passed two resolutions yesterday urging President Donald Trump to rescind the newly created Bears Ears National Monument and the Utah congressional delegation to reduce the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Bears Ears is 1.35 million acres and was created by President Barack Obama in December. Grand Staircase was created by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and contains 1.88 million acres.
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