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After a massive backlash, a Republican yanks his bill to sell off public lands


In January, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill in the House that would direct the Bureau of Land Management to sell off 3.3 million acres of federally owned lands — an area the size of Connecticut.

But this week, Chaffetz decided to yank the bill after a fierce backlash from hunters, sportsmen and women, and conservationists on both the left and the right. Privatizing public land, it turns out, is a lot harder than it sounds.

Chaffetz announced on Instagram that he was pulling the bill, HR 621, saying, “I'm a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands.” He insisted that the lands he wanted the government to sell off are “serving no public purpose,” but that “groups I support and care about fear [the bill] sends the wrong message.”

Why some conservatives want to sell off federal lands

The backstory here is that the federal government has long owned vast swaths of land across the West that agencies like the Bureau of Land Management manage for multiple uses — some of it is leased to oil, gas, and timber companies, but it’s also open to outdoor enthusiasts, campers, hunters, and other recreationists. And some of the land is managed for wildlife protection.

The map below shows which agencies manage which portions — note that BLM oversees the vast majority of the acreage in Utah, Chaffetz’s home state:

Federal Lands Federal lands in the West (National Atlas)

In recent years, a number of conservatives have been pushing to change this arrangement. In 2012, the Utah legislature passed a bill asking that all federal lands within its borders be turned over to the state to manage — a move that would require an act of Congress. Among other things, supporters of the bill argued that Utah could reap more revenue by expanding oil and gas drilling on those lands.

Chaffetz’s bill wouldn’t go that far. Instead, his bill targeted 3.3 million acres across the West — about 0.5 percent of all federal land — that had been identified by the Clinton administration in a 1997 survey as not generating revenue for taxpayers.

“The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands,” Chaffetz said in introducing his bill, “will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities.”

Why Chaffetz’s idea proved so controversial

But the situation wasn’t nearly as simple as Chaffetz implied. As Caty Enders of the Guardian reported, that 1997 survey from the Clinton administration didn’t suggest that all of these federal lands could be easily sold off. In fact, it explicitly said: “Please note many lands identified appear to have conflicts which may preclude them from being considered for disposal or exchange.” Some of the areas hosted endangered species or wetlands, for instance. Others had “cultural significance.”

In any case, a backlash to Chaffetz’s bill quickly formed, as Alex Robinson of Outdoor Life detailed. Conservationists and hunting groups noted that selling off even small parcels of land to private interests could cut off public access into national forests for hunters or campers.

But perhaps more relevant, many groups seemed to see this as a gateway to a much bigger fire sale of federal lands down the road. The precise lands in play here were less important than the larger principles at stake.

One group, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, raised a particular fuss. “For Mr. Chaffetz, you’ve kicked the hornet’s nest, and the army is amassing,” said its CEO, Land Tawney, on a widely shared Facebook 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.” A coalition of outdoors groups — including the National Wildlife Federation, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, Trout Unlimited, and Remington — started circulating a petition to stop the bill, with over 46,000 signatories.

In the end, Chaffetz backed down — it wasn’t just conservationists complaining about his bill; it was conservative gun owners and hunters too.

It’s unclear if Republicans in Congress might return to the issue of transferring public lands later on. On the one hand, the House GOP passed a rule last month that arguably made it easier to sell off federal lands — even if the sale doesn’t generate revenue. (These 3.3 million acres were unlikely to be sold for much money, since they’re not raising revenue right now.) So there’s some groundwork being laid here.

On the other hand, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of interior, Ryan Zinke, has flatly said he’s opposed to selling public lands. “I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands,” he said in his confirmation hearing. “I can’t be more clear.” At this point, Zinke’s stance seems a bit safer politically.

Further reading:

  • If you’re interested in the debate over selling off public lands, start with this paper by Thomas More, formerly of the US Forest Service, that delves into the philosophical arguments for and against. High Country News has also been covering this topic for many years.
  • For more on the case for selling off public lands, it’s worth checking out the Property and Environment Research Center. This paper, for instance, argues that states tend to reap higher financial returns from land management than the federal government does (though, crucially, they also manage those lands for different uses).
  • And for the case against selling off public lands, Headwaters Economics is your best bet. It has a lot of resources on why public lands are so valuable.