Don’t Look Now, But Your Public Lands May Be Screwed

Led by Utah, Congress is gunning to sell or ruin the American common

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 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, “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.

Other findings:

• 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.

Adventure Journal is free but relies on reader support to make stories like this possible. Please join the thousands of your fellow adventurers and subscribe to our amazing printed quarterly or pick up an issue here.

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal.
Showing 16 comments
  • Nick

    I could f***ing cry right now.

    But I won’t. I will write to my congressmen to express my dismay over this subject, and I will ask all of my friends to do the same.

    I hope all of you do the same. The American economy is questionable, the politics suck right now, many folks don’t earn enough. One of the few truly great things that we do have and one thing that we all share is the ‘weekend refuge’ that is our wild lands.

    We cannot let this happen!

  • Eric Porter

    Steve, do you have any ideas for the most effective way to help stop this bill? I have a feeling that calling Chaffetz’s office won’t do much good, he’s been trying to do this type of thing for a long time, along with Noel and Bishop.

    • Steve Casimiro

      You aren’t going to budge Chaffetz or Bishop one bit. But this survey shows that people overwhelmingly favor preserving public lands—it’s the radicals in Utah and a handful of representatives in bed with industry that are the problem. Continue to pressure your three members of Congress to oppose these moves and support them when they speak up. Organize a group of friends to do the same. And strange as it is, Zinke is probably going to be the best advocate in the Trump administration—if confirmed, his efforts to keep federal lands federal should also be supported.

      Continue to spread the word. These lands belong to ALL Americans. And MOST Americans favor keeping them. Use polls like this one to support your argument. Look for opportunities on the lift, at the trailhead, at the boot fitters, to bring the issue up.

    • Fitz F Cahall

      If you live outside of Utah. I’d say that you can call your representative and reference the specific bill. To give a little perspective, he’s introduced this an almost identical version of this bill in the house each of the last few years and it hasn’t gone through even though the public was much less aware of the issue. Call your rep. Call your Senator.

      If you live inside Utah, call the Governor. Herbert is terrible on this issue, but there is mounting pressure being applied about the Outdoor Retailer show on the Governor over these issues. He’s hearing about it from business leaders. Constituents should add their voice. He’s definitely coordinated with Utah’s reps in Congress.

      • Steve Casimiro


        All true. And we don’t know what the Senate would do if this clears the House. The difference now is that there’s a president who very well could sign this into law if it gets that far.

  • Joshua DeRosa

    Chaffetz and the rest of the Utah dingbats are on the end of a leash controlled by the oil & gas lobby and get paid to be good little doggies. Polls show they don’t represent the views of the majority of their constituents. I pledge to do everything I can to stop these short-sighted numbskulls from ruining our land for their own personal gains.

  • Sean

    I called my representatives about this last week, and will do so again today. #resist

  • Richard Scott

    Text of the bill (HR621) is available here:

    Also the text for HR622 (another Chaffetz doozy) which would strip USFS and BLM of their law enforcement units and turn LE over to a county Sheriff’s Office.

    • Kate

      Thank you for posting this link. I am trying to read and understand the bill, there is a list of exceptions and one says “Lands subject to a Recreation and Public Purpose conveyance application.” What does this mean?

  • Piper Watson

    THANK YOU STEVE – incredibly well written article with data that readers can work from to inform educated actions… and I think we are all pretty damn motivated to act as of late….

  • Casey Wells

    Looks like maybe HR 621 will be removed so that’s great news.

    @jasoninthehouse I am withdrawing HR 621. I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands. The bill would have disposed of small parcels of lands Pres. Clinton identified as serving no public purpose but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message. The bill was originally introduced several years ago. I look forward to working with you. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow. #keepitpublic #tbt

  • DanO

    Good news, but we still need to keep an eye on the land grabbers. I firmly believe giving any Federal land to the states will lead to them being sold off to cover budget shortfalls. Thanks AJ for keeping us up on what’s happening. I’ve written to my congressman and Senators.

  • Eric

    Thank you for writing this piece, and to all you guys leaving comments. I’m so glad AJ is taking on serious issues like this and believe that the more people we can inform of this threat, the less likely it is to materialize. Let’s keep the heat on!!

  • Bryan Simmons

    There’s an area just outside of Zion National park that is going up for lease. There are many hiking and biking trails that run through this area that would be heavily affected. Please go here to leave public comment on the leasing document and you can go here to sign a petition:

    Please do your small part to help protect.

  • Sharon Hogan

    CHAFFETZ JUST WITHDREW HR621 !! He is claiming it was introduced originally to dispose of lands deemed worthless by President Clinton ?… , but now he’s had an epiphany and realizes that he and many of the people who vote for him actually use Federal public lands for all that they offer besides profits for Big Extraction. Thank you everyone who harangued him. Our input does make a difference, even when we think all is lost. Let’s keep up our resistance and our belief that every action is important. Thank him and ask him to also withdraw HR622.

  • Robin EH Bagley

    Was thrilled last night to read that Chaffetz withdrew HR 621. It shows that people can make a difference; however, we need the same thing to happen to HR 622. If that bill passes, it will continue the piecemeal dismantling of our public lands that started with the passage of the House rules package rending federal land transfers as budget neutral. As Sharon noted above, thank Chaffetz for withdrawing the bill, and encourage him to withdraw HR 622. And then tell your own Congress person not to support it.

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