This week Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, asked budget writers to set aside $50 million to account for the costs to transfer federal lands to state governments — only a couple months after the House approved new rules that allowed the government to transfer lands without budgetary assessment.
“Poorly managed federal lands create a burden for surrounding states and communities,” Bishop wrote in his fiscal assessment for the Committee on Natural Resources. “The solution is to convey certain lands to state, local, and tribal governments, without limiting strings attached, including reversionary clauses… Fiscal prudence paired with responsible resource development is a core driver of job creation, fiscal stability, and greater opportunity for our people.” The word conservation is mentioned once (and in a negative light) in the 13-page document.
We still don’t know what lands, exactly, Bishop is talking about. “Bishop’s language wasn’t very clear, and that may have been intentional,” says Chris Krupp of Wild Earth Guardians. “I don’t know how he came up with this $50 million budget number, but you can imagine the value of the public lands he wants to sell out from under us if he thinks the associated costs are $50 million.”
Krupp notes that the $50 million cost could include tasks like environmental and cultural analyses, surveying work, auction costs, and more — things typically done before a piece of land is sold. The reason Bishop gives for the set-aside cash is to “cover possible impacts on off-setting receipts.”
Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, thinks the money represents something more inherent in state control of public lands. “The fact that he’s asking for $50 million shows that the states don’t have the resources to manage these lands,” he says. “These efforts aren’t addressing the core problem, which is that we want these public lands to be public, but we want them managed better. We want more collaboration, we want more active restoration, we want better outcomes for wildlife and recreation and water and even local economic development. Not a symbolic attempt to get a grandstand on sell-offs.”
“I don’t know why Mr. Bishop is again carrying this forward,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “The people have already spoken earlier this year a resounding ‘hell no’ ”—referring to Jason Chaffetz pulling back HR 621 due to public outcry — “and now Bishop’s bringing this forward. His motives are obviously trying to steal our heritage, and we’re not going to stand idly by.”
Activists all over the country are gearing up for an intensified fight to keep public lands public. In Nevada, for example, political leaders are looking to transfer up to 7 million acres of federal land to state control. Public land advocates are currently placing big hopes on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
“I was with the secretary on Thursday, and he was crystal-clear about his commitment to keeping public lands public and preventing the whole sell-off,” Mara says. “The best thing that he can do is to start bringing people together for the management of public land, and he’s already talked about investments through the infrastructure package.”
“Mr. Zinke has bucked Mr. Bishop in the past when he was on the Natural Resources Committee on issues like this,” says Tawney. “I hope he does it again.”
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