In the latest session of Congress, brought to you by greed and avarice, Republican lawmakers have been working quietly behind the scenes to sell off or give away federal lands.
Areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forests, and Federal Wildlife Refuges will be affected. These lands contribute approximately $646 billion and 6.1 million jobs from recreational use, according to the Guardian.
Under the new rules, the government will be able to transfer these lands to states, who will then be able to decimate our national wildlife and forests by turning them over to private buyers for development or exploitation.
In 2012, the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that the federal government collects nearly $40 billion every year from recreation economic activity. With a recovering economy, it could only have increased in the last five years, as Americans have started vacationing closer to home as a result of the recession.
To add insult to the injury of devaluing the land, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah has introduced a new bill that will dispose of 3.3 million acres of public lands.
Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society released a statement in response to the bill:
“Trump’s allies in Washington laid the tracks for this land takeover scheme the moment they started their legislative session, and now they’re driving a locomotive over the American people and our wild natural heritage.”
National lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming will be affected.
Chaffetz is unabashedly targeting public lands, releasing a statement on his website that blatantly disregards the legacy of nationally held wilderness and wildlife refuges, saying they “have been deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers.”
“The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities.”
The new bill, according to the Guardian, would result in an immediate sale of public land roughly the size of Connecticut.
Some BLM land is already leased for oil, gas, and timber, as well as recreational use, increasing tax revenue for the federal government and providing struggling small business and ranches with low-cost resources. The land also serves to protect wildlife during seasonal migration, while low-lying land provides grazing land for game.
Along with removing protection for both the health of the environment and the wildlife, selling off parcels of land to private owners has caused problems with access to adjoining public lands.
Jason Amaro, representing the southwest chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told the Guardian that 10 acres sold to a private owner in the Coronado national forest blocked access to thousands of acres of national forest.
“Access has been eliminated for much of the forest. The private landowners now effectively have their own private hunting preserves by not allowing public hunters a way into the national forest.”
Releasing federal lands into state or private hands could have other negative results as well. Michelle Nijhuis of The New Yorker said the disposals of the land into state hands could cause undue burden on local governments and end in unchecked environment disasters such as the unregulated overgrazing on the plains that resulted in the Dust Bowl.
As well as defying an American tradition instituted by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, the Republicans in the House have shot themselves in the foot with modern-day voters, as well. A poll conducted by Colorado College in 2013 showed that 72 percent of voters in the western states would be less likely to vote for candidate who proposes to sell off public lands.
This isn’t a partisan issue, either. A 2016 poll performed by the Center for American Progress showed that 78 percent of voters opposed plans to sell public lands or privatize them, with 91 percent of Clinton voters opposed, and a surprising majority of 64 percent of Trump supporters opposed.
It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will react to this bill. Trump’s Interior Secretary appointee, Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Montana, emphatically stated his refusal to “dispose” of public lands, and new U.S. president, Donald Trump, seems to agree.
The New Yorker quotes Zinke at his confirmation hearing in January:
“I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands. I can’t be more clear.”
Trump told Field & Stream last January that he was against the sale of public lands. His response to the issue was somewhat simplistic, but one that even the most adamant liberal could get behind:
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land.”
Hopefully, Trump and his new secretary of the interior will continue to stand with the conservation of our natural resources, wildlife refuges, and national wilderness.