Last Wednesday, the Federal Land Freedom Act was given a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee led by Chairman Rob Bishop. The bill, H.R. 3565, seeks to hand management of public, federal lands to the states and eliminate safety measures and regulations that protect land and water. It would give states full control over leasing, permitting, and regulation on many national public lands.
“This bill takes land that belongs to all Americans and sells it out to the oil and gas industry by prioritizing energy production over wildlife, hunting, fishing, biking and other recreational uses,” says Brad Brooks, director of the public lands campaign at The Wilderness Society. “It gives the keys to all decision making on energy development to states and industry while blocking the public from enjoying their own lands. Whether national parks, forests, wildlife refuges or BLM lands, America’s public lands belong to all of us and must be managed for the benefit of the entire nation, not just oil and gas companies.”
H.R. 3565 blocks protections provided by the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act. It also removes the public’s right to comment on decisions about public lands.
The bill operates on the assumption that the federal government is hurting the oil and gas industry by limiting their operations on public lands. However, according to a study by The Wilderness Society, in 2015 only 15 percent of all land offered in lease sales was actually purchased by oil and gas companies. Beyond that, according to the bill itself, 40 percent of onshore federal land is already open and accessible for oil and gas development.
States do not have the resources or expertise to manage federal oil and gas development, and, historically, giving states control of federal land is just a step on the way to liquidating the public lands themselves. For instance, Idaho has sold of 1.7 million acres of state-held land, primarily to livestock interests and timber companies. The sales cut off public access for recreation and even allow lands to become industrialized. Utah has liquidated 54 percent of its state land, selling off 4.1 million acres to private interests, including sites of archaeological importance and wildlife habitat. The dismantling of U.S. public lands begins with removing them from the jurisdiction of the federal agencies created to protect and manage them, splintering federal lands into state hands with vastly different goals, less available resources, and fewer protections.
H.R. 3565 is just one of a host of bills seeking to undermine the protection and very existence of public lands. Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) recently introduced the Mojave County Federal Lands Management Act, S.467, which mandates the sale of a large portion of Arizona’s public land to offset a budget deficit. It also gives local county elected officials unprecedented decision power regarding which lands will be sold and the right to shut the public out of the conversation. The NRA-backed Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act seeks to bar the National Park Service from regulating hunting and fishing on federal lands under their jurisdiction in Alaska, instead letting the state make the rules—which means hunters would be allowed to trap mother bears and cubs in their dens and use similar hunting tactics for other predator species. Alaska already succeeded in barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from regulating hunting and fishing on federal wildlife refuges in the state.
Advocacy groups and activists often talk about our public lands being “sold off.” These kinds of bills are what they are talking about. The liquidation of federal public lands and everything they offer—including but not limited to space for recreation, protection for natural resources, protection for spiritually and historically significant tribal lands, wildlife habitat, greater biodiversity, and rich material for archaeological and scientific research and fieldwork—is not a matter of a simple sale. It is a slow and methodical process of splintering and weakening the systems in place to protect them, through bills stripping power from agencies tasked with protection and conservation, budget cuts, exploitation of the land for destructive natural resource extraction, and, eventually, leasing and sale to private interests. Republican and Democratic voters are overwhelmingly against the dismantling of protections for public lands, but powerful private interests, namely, the oil and gas industry, continue to sway political decisions regarding America’s commons.
Photo by Abigail Barronian.
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