Land transfer bill fails to launch
February 3, 2017
Public outcry killed a federal land transfer bill only about a week after it was introduced in Congress.
The bill was introduced in the U.S. House last week proposing the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal land in the West, including more than 1,700 acres in Garfield County. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced via social media Wednesday night that he would withdraw H.R. 621.
"The bill would have disposed of small parcels of lands (President Bill Clinton) identified as serving no public purpose but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message," Chaffetz wrote. "The bill was originally introduced several years ago. I look forward to working with you. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow. #keepitpublic #tbt"
The proposed "Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017" also targeted lands in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Nevada.
"The land transfer movement is at its strongest in Utah, and to see a Utah representative see how unpopular it is across the West is encouraging," said Will Roush, conservation director at the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.
"I think this shows that people in the West care a huge amount about public lands, and they're not willing to have them sold or transferred to the states. The outcry was loud, clear and strong."
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It's unclear which 28 parcels of Garfield County land were included.
This proposal was based on federal public lands identified by the Clinton administration in 1997 as possibly suitable for sale or exchange to finance a restoration project in the Florida Everglades. Wilderness Workshop said this included more than 93,000 acres in Colorado, and the 1997 report cites more than 1,700 acres in Garfield County.
Asked to identify the specific acreage that would be affected in Garfield County, BLM Colorado's communications director, Steven Hall said, "Unfortunately, we can't."
"That legislation wasn't something BLM was involved in, and we cannot go back and spend resources trying to ascertain what acreage was referenced in the bill," he said in a message to the Post Independent.
David Boyd, the BLM Colorado River Valley Field Office's public affairs specialist, was also trying Thursday to pin down which parcels would have been affected.
The 1997 Everglades report included lands that the BLM had at that time designated for disposal. In the Colorado River Valley Field Office, those designations were made in a 1984 resource management plan, said Boyd.
Chaffetz's bill seems to leapfrog the most recent 2015 management plan back to a 20-year-old Clinton administration report, which itself is based off of designations made 33 years ago.
Boyd was able to pull the field office's 1984 RMP that identifies about 10,000 acres in the field office that were identified for disposal.
They include scattered tracts of BLM land across the field office, but it's still unknown which of these parcels would have been affected by Chaffetz's bill.
Additionally, since then the Colorado River Valley Field Office has issued a 2015 management plan, which specifically avoids designating any BLM land for disposal. Rather, the most recent plan leaves the land flexible and open to proposals for exchanges if they would be to the public's benefit, said Boyd.
Boyd pointed out that the field office has had some great success exchanging small portions of land that are difficult to access and manage for other properties that offer more benefit.
While there may be some cases where it's appropriate for land exchanges, such as for recreational or ecological benefits, the blanket sale of land identified in the '80s and '90s is very shortsighted, said Roush.
This bill would have mandated their sale without considering newer information, he said.
Rather than a blanket sale of these 3.3 million acres as Chaffetz's bill would mandate, "I think this (1997) report was a more nuanced than simply selling the land and putting the money in the Treasury," said Roush.
This bill is part of a wider movement supporting the transfer of federal lands to the states, local governments or private hands.
"It's part of a larger effort by a fringe movement, mostly happening at the state level," said Roush.
In 2012 Utah's legislature passed a bill requiring the federal government to transfer public lands back to the state, but so far it hasn't gone anywhere.
"The real threat is from Congress, because it does have the power to sell and transfer federal lands," said Roush. "I think it's great to see that where that threat is real, (in Congress), it has been pushed back because it's so unpopular."
Although there aren't any other bills in play that would directly sell or transfer public lands, a couple other developments are moving in that direction. At the beginning of the current session, Congress passed a rules package that essentially zeroed out the fiscal impact of such land transfers.
"This paves the way for land transfers because it removes the fiscal implication; it greases the skids," said Roush.
The 1906 Antiquities Act, the law that allows the president to take executive action to form national monuments, is also at risk by a bill in Congress. This bill would require, to designate a national monument, approval from both Congress and the legislature in the state in question, which is an extremely high demand, said Roush.
While H.R. 621 suffered a quick death, there has been no word on a companion bill, H.R. 622, which Chaffetz has also sponsored, that would eliminate the U.S. Forest Service's and BLM's law enforcement role. The bill would hand that jurisdiction the states, which would be funded through block grants to be distributed to local law enforcement. Local authorities would then be tasked with enforcing federal laws on these lands.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario doesn't like the idea.
"I don't want to get into having to 'manage' federally managed lands. That's why we have 'land management' agencies!" he wrote in an email Thursday.
The sheriff was also wary of the idea of block grants to pay for that extra responsibility.
"I always get concerned when federal grants are involved because of all of the conditions they impose on us and how they try to tell us what's best from their Washington, D.C., bubble.
"I think the people of the county elect their sheriff to manage local laws and issues, not monitor travel management plans, camping issues, etc., nor be beholden to Washington."