Thursday 19 January 2017
In the midst of highly publicized steps to dismantle insurance coverage for 32 million people and defund women’s healthcare facilities, Republican lawmakers have quietly laid the foundation to give away Americans’ birthright: 640m acres of national land. In a single line of changes to the rules for the House of Representatives, Republicans have overwritten the value of federal lands, easing the path to disposing of federal property even if doing so loses money for the government and provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens.
At stake are areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forests and Federal Wildlife Refuges, which contribute to an estimated $646bn each year in economic stimulus from recreation on public lands and 6.1m jobs. Transferring these lands to the states, critics fear, could decimate those numbers by eliminating mixed-use requirements, limiting public access and turning over large portions for energy or property development.
In addition to economic stimulus from outdoor activities, federal land creates revenue through oil and gas production, logging and other industrial uses. According to the BLM, in 2016, it made $2bn in royalty revenue from federal leases. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates federal tax revenue from the recreation economy at almost $40bn.
Ignoring those figures, the new language for the House budget, authored by Utah Republican representative Rob Bishop, who has a history of fighting to transfer public land to the states, says that federal land is effectively worthless. Transferring public land to “state, local government or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending or increasing outlays.”
Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.
Republican eagerness to cede federal land to local governments for possible sale, mining or development is already moving states to act. Western states, where most federal land is concentrated, are already introducing legislation that pave the way for land transfers.
In Wyoming, for example, the 2017 senate has introduced a joint resolution that would amend the state constitution to dictate how public land given to the state by the federal government after 2019 is managed. It has little public support, but Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout said that he thought the state should be preemptively thinking about what it would do with federal land.
“We didn’t see it coming. I think it was sneaky and underhanded. It exemplifies an effort to not play by the rules,” said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations at The Wilderness Society. “This is the worst Congress for public lands ever.”