As the 115th Congress takes shape we’re starting to see an indication of an expedited attempt to dispose of federal lands either through direct sale or transfer title to the state level. Although the latter may make sense to give ownership and management of these lands to the states that these parcels reside in, all indications from local leaders at the ground level seem geared toward developing the land or selling outright to balance state budgets. Citizens should expect these public lands to go private and off limits, and should expect very little in return for compensation. However, a large outcry from people all across the outdoor community including hunters, anglers, rock climbers, gear manufacturers, and others have forced the hand of politician into rethinking their strategy. Let’s take a look at how this came about.
The first indication of a shift in public land management policy revealed itself when Congress decreed that “a conveyance of Federal land to a State, local government, or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays. H Res 5, page 35)” Essentially what this resolution does is remove reporting requirements for any large transfers of land and save Congress from having to find any offsets, thus expediting the process significantly and lessening public scrutiny.
The second signal came in the introduction of HR 621 in January by Rep Chaffetz (R) from Utah titled “To direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell certain Federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, previously identified as suitable for disposal, and for other purposes.” Most conservation groups believe the land in question would at least contain three million acres deemed disposable by previous Congressional studies, however, the language of the bill had not been submitted for scrutiny so the amount of property was in question. Expectations were that it could include much more.
Members all across the outdoor community took to social media, town hall events, and sent messages to members of Congress showing their displeasure. Although the elected representatives at first seemed to dig in their heels, the bill’s sponsor, Representative Jason Chaffetz from Utah (R), eventually withdrew the bill.
Unfortunately, the fight doesn’t seem to be over. Facing an increased push at the state level in Utah to lobby Congress to revoke the designation of the newly created Bears Ears National Monument, outdoor gear manufacturers have decided to pull the massive Outdoor Retailer show from Utah. The $45 million show is now looking for a new home after deciding to leave Salt Lake City after spending several decades there. Without a doubt, this was a monumental blow to the state and a major development in the battle for public lands.
Going forward it’s hard to say what will happen with public lands as it seems the battle is more than likely put on hold than decided upon. Many in the west would prefer the types of jobs created in mineral extraction or development of public lands and ranchers would like to use the property without paying fees. Transfer is also mentioned in the GOP party platform, which at this time controls the federal government and most state governments. At this point, people are taking a wait and see approach by monitoring legislation and taking action against it when necessary.