Utah congressman pulls federal land transfer bill, but fight to keep federal lands public continuesSo-called “message bill” offered 5 times before had real potential consequences in 10 Western states
| The Denver Post
PUBLISHED: February 2, 2017 at 12:38 pm | UPDATED: February 3, 2017 at 11:42 am
A little more than week after Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill calling for the disposal of 3.3 million acres of federal land in 10 Western states, the fifth-term Republican announced late Wednesday on Instagram he was withdrawing H.R. 621.
“I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands,” he wrote below a photo of himself in camouflage hunting gear, holding his hound. “Groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message. I hear you and HR621 dies tomorrow #keepitpublic.”
Chaffetz has introduced the federal land disposal bill five times in his career. Under the Obama Administration, it was largely considered a message bill, an unlikely proposal that coddled core constituents.
But with the uncertainty surrounding the Trump Administration’s position on public lands and the Republican Party platform supporting the conveyance of some federal lands, this year the bill seemed more consequential. Especially after the House of Representatives last month passed a rule change that made it easier to transfer public lands by designating federal land sales as “budget neutral” and eliminating rules that prevented the undervaluing of public lands.
Last week 20 outdoor industry groups — including the influential Outdoor Industry Alliance, the National Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers — sent a letter to the 115th Congress blasting the rule change, saying the public lands “shape our national identity” and “are critical to the future of hunting, fishing and wildlife and the sustained economic health of communities bordering these lands.”
The Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder shows the outdoor recreation economy, which leans heavily on accessing public lands, delivers a $646 billion economic impact to the U.S. and employs 6.1 million Americans. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper last week told The Denver Post that Colorado should elevate its protection of public lands as an enticement for the Utah-based $45 million Outdoor Retailer summer and winter trade shows, where outdoor industry leaders are growing increasingly frustrated with public lands proposals like Chaffetz’s.
Earlier this week, hundreds of protesters rallied at statehouses in New Mexico and Montana rejecting efforts to transfer the ownership of federal lands.
“I think we are seeing, across all sorts of issues, a grassroots energy really pushing elected officials to stand with their constituents. Public lands allies and sportsmen across the West are fired up about this stuff. This is sort of a red line for them,” said Greg Zimmerman, the deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. “Outdoor businesses and the outdoor recreation community is recognizing they are big industry and very important to these rural Western economies and we are seeing this Congress really kowtow to oil and gas and coal industries. They’re saying ‘Hey we are the future of the West and our voices need to be heard’ and I like to think Congressman Chaffetz is acknowledging that fact with this decision.”
While Rep. Chaffetz’s withdrawal is certainly a win for land advocates, conservationists, sportsmen and outdoor industry leaders, it’s one victorious skirmish in a growing battle. Chaffetz did not withdraw his H.R. 622 bill, which he first introduced last year, that would transfer law enforcement on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land to local sheriff’s deputies. Legislation in Wyoming could pave the way for the transfer of as much as 25 million acres of federal lands to state control. The threat of reversing the Obama Administration’s creation of 29 national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, including Colorado’s Chimney Rock and Browns Canyon, still lingers. Congress is making moves to reverse the Bureau of Land Management’s revised land-use planning rule, a signature Obama Administration project finalized in December 2016 known as Planning 2.0.
Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney this week proposed a bill to repeal Planning 2.0, saying in a statement that the new planning rule “represents a federal power grab that ignores expert knowledge and undermines the ability of state and local governments to effectively manage resources and land use inside their own districts.”
The fight to keep federal lands federal is one that will last years.
“While this is certainly heartening that Congressman Chaffetz heard people and responded, we are going to continue to make a heck of a lot of noise. This is an uphill battle and it’s one being fought on several fronts,” National Wildlife Federation spokeswoman Judith Kohler said. “Even though we keep saying the same things over and over again, we are going to have to keep it up.”