Public Lands in Peril

I’m going to get political for this post because it’s time for all of us to get political. Clean air and water are under attack, our civil rights are under attack, and, what I want to highlight here, our public lands are under attack.

A new bill (H.R. 621) introduced in the House last Tuesday by Representative Jason Chaffetz would have the Secretary of the Interior sell off public lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Tellingly, the full text of this bill is not available as of this post. This follows on from bill H.R. 5 which states:

In the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, for all purposes in the House, a provision in a bill or joint resolution, or in an amendment thereto or a conference report thereon, requiring or authorizing 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.

Conveyance here means “sale, donation, or exchange.”

According to its website, the Bureau of Land Management controls 1 in every 10 acres of land in the United States, including about 30% of U.S. minerals. These lands, which make up national monuments, forests, grasslands, range lands, and wildlife refuges, are used for recreation, hunting, fishing, mining, timber operations, grazing, agriculture, and conservation and contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy along with thousands of jobs each year. In 2015, these lands provided a combined $88 billion dollars in economic output and supported 374,000 jobs.

Given the amount of revenue public lands contribute to the economy each year, for that land to not “decrease revenues” or “increase spending or outlays” during its sale, donation, or exchange, it must be worth nothing because it’s impossible to account for all that lost money through a single infusion of cash. So, essentially, this bill states that our public lands are worthless. The Congressional Budget Office is required to calculate the costs of selling public lands (see here), but if those lands are deemed worthless, there’s nothing to calculate. It’s a sneaky, back-handed move made to quickly and easily sell them off. It’s really no surprise that H.R. 621 followed quickly on the heels of this provision.

The land designated for sale is composed of 3.3 million acres in the states listed above. These lands were initially earmarked for sale by Bill Clinton in 2000 with the sale meant to pay for the cost of seeing to the land’s disposal (20%) and paying for the acquisition of other sensitive lands (80%) as a kind of land swap. Under the new administration, however, the intent is merely to reduce the amount of land held by the Federal government and return it to the states for disposal.

The rationale behind selling Federal land to states is that states are more equipped to manage local lands and the land will increase their tax revenue, but studies suggest that states would find it difficult to pay the costs of fighting wildfires, maintaining necessary infrastructure, and managing other needs such as conservation. It is highly likely, therefore, that states would sell the land to private entities for mining, drilling, and developing.

Although the Bureau of Land Management was only established in 1946, its forerunner, the General Land Office, was created in 1812. It has been managing Federal lands in one form or another for over 200 years. Are we content with pillaging that legacy?
Once land is developed, it can never go back to the way it was and once it is sold off to a private entity, it rarely if ever comes back to the public. We’ll be losing a vital resource for the creation of jobs, infusion of cash into the economy, and the preservation of wilderness.

I strongly urge you, if you care about America’s public lands and don’t want to see them sold off or given away, call your Congressional representatives and tell them to vote against H.R. 621. You can find your representatives here as well as ways to contact them.








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