While people in America’s heartland celebrated the beginning of 2017 by shivering and shoveling snow, a new session of Congress convened. It didn’t take long for heat to surge from our nation’s capitol.
The House of Representatives drew flak for proposing to abolish a congressional ethics office, finally retracting that move when even President-elect Trump criticized the change. Observers noted, however, that Trump didn’t criticize the proposal as much as whether it was a priority.
That same package of House rules includes a new rule that would make it easier to sell off Federal public lands.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee is a leader among those advocating that large areas of public lands should be transferred to state and local authorities on the grounds that they will be more responsive to the needs of local residents.
According to a Washington Post article last week, current Congressional Budget Office accounting rules state that any transfer of federal land that generates revenue for the U.S. Treasury, such as logging, grazing, energy extraction, has a cost, and if Congress wants to give such land to a state or local government, or tribe, they have to account for that loss in expected cash flow.
Rep. Bishop wrote new rules that would drop that requirement, saying any such transfers “shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.” In other words, those federal lands have no value, and thus can be given away.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), called this rules change “outrageous and absurd,” saying that the rules change would allow Congress to “give way every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value.” He adds that this is “a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”
Alan Rowsome, a spokesman for The Wilderness Society, said in a statement, “Right out of the gate, Congressional Republicans are declaring open season on Federal lands…This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing; this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”
We shouldn’t be surprised by this move to make it easier to steal our public lands, considering that the Republican Party’s official platform endorses the idea of transferring public lands to the states.
The Post article noted that Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, has opposed public lands transfers and even resigned his spot as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, last summer, over the issue, though, as widely reported in the press, Zinke did vote for the rules changes last week.
A Zinke spokesperson, Heather Swift, commented that Zinke’s position on land transfer has not changed.
In a magazine interview a year ago, Mr. Trump said of public lands, “I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land.”
As this new session of Congress stumbles along, with Donald Trump due to be sworn in as President in just ten days, we will learn just who are the stewards of public lands.
We do know that the outgoing Obama Administration took action to deny a big copper mining project to be developed next to the Boundary Waters Area in northern Minnesota. There was some controversy in Minnesota, where some felt that mining jobs were worth the risk. After all, what could go wrong? That, of course, is a question that we in Butte, Montana can answer with ease.
The Obama Administration also created National Monuments to protect areas in Utah and Nevada, including an area where Cliven Bundy ran cows while cheating the American people of grazing fees.
As for land transfers, my friend, Land Tawney, the CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said, “Some…elected officials are wasting no time in paving the way to steal our outdoor heritage. If it’s a fight they want, they’ve got one coming.”