Environment

The GOP and ALEC's Brazen Plan to Sell Off America's Public Lands to the Fossil Fuel Industry

Western states have already sold and privatized 31 million acres of state lands—an area about the size of Louisiana.

National parks, forests, refuges and other public lands have been important to Americans since the realization in the mid-19th-century that our wild places were disappearing. Today, these protected, shared lands are valued for their beauty, recreation and economic values as well as the clean air, water and wildlife habitat they provide.  

Protected forests and red rock lands in Nevada and Utah belong to vacationing families in Massachusetts and New Mexico. Parks and refuges in Montana and California belong to campers and birdwatchers from South Carolina and Illinois.

But the political regime change in Washington, D.C. means that our wild American lands—and the outdoor recreation opportunities they offer—are under direct attack.

The armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge at the hands of the Bundys and their allies last January may have seemed distant and unimaginable to most American communities. But what these reckless delinquents are after and what some politicians are supporting in Congress is very similar: reducing the “federal estate”—parks, forests, refuges and monuments that belong to all Americans, and turning them over to private interests to log, mine, drill and otherwise develop for short-term gain. The freedom to access these places for America’s favorite outdoor pastimes like hunting, camping, hiking and fishing will be lost.

A no-trespassing sign in New Mexico, where oil and gas production is by far the largest source of revenue on state lands. (credit: Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society)

Anti-federal voices mangle facts and distort the truth about the history behind America’s public lands. For starters, our public lands—all 640 million acres of national forests, wildlife refuges, deserts, grasslands and parks—belong to the American people. They are cared for, on our behalf, by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When criminals like the Bundys suggest we need to “give” public lands “back” to the people, they are conveniently distorting the truth to steal these lands from every one of us.

In fact, this effort to reduce and dismantle public lands has virtually no legal merit, according to a 2016 report by 12 western attorneys general, and is nothing more than an attempt to give away the nation’s outdoor legacy. 

From the opening day of Congress this year, lawmakers have prioritized bills and resolutions that would tear apart America’s great outdoors protected and handed down by conservation giants like Theodore Roosevelt.

On January 3, the House passed a rule to change the way it accounts for selling off our public lands. Although confusing to most of the public, the rule essentially makes it easy for Congress to give away public lands that belong to all Americans because it says, in effect, that giving away our national parks, forests and other public lands has no dollar impact on the federal budget. This brazen land give-away tactic essentially deems our shared public lands worthless—but states and the private sector will be free to enrich themselves from those very same lands. Cash-strapped states would invariably sell or lease these lands for extractive development. 

The oil and gas industry would benefit from public lands being turned over to states, which do not have to follow many national environmental laws or requirements for public involvement. Importantly, nearly every western state operates under a constitutional mandate to maximize revenue generation on state lands. In fossil fuel-producing states, such as New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, oil and gas production is by far the largest revenue source on state lands.

A no-trespassing sign in New Mexico, on state land now owned by Chevron Corp. (credit: Michael Casaus, The Wilderness Society)

The people pushing the effort to give public lands to states claim that states would not sell the land; they say the only thing that would change is who manages the land. That assertion is demonstrably false. States have a long track record of liquidating state lands to private interests. Collectively, western states have sold and privatized 31 million acres of state lands—an area roughly the size of Louisiana. Idaho alone has sold off roughly 41 percent of the lands it held at statehood. In 19 state legislatures throughout the United States, roughly 100 bills attacking public lands have been introduced or debated over the past year, from Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Washington to Midwestern and Eastern states including Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.  

And even where the lands might not be formally given to the states, we’re seeing efforts such as the ironically named Federal Lands Freedom Act, which would transfer responsibility for leasing, permitting and regulating oil and gas development to state agencies. We can expect these lands to be effectively turned over to the extractive industry that supports both actual and virtual giveaways. 

The oil and gas industry already has an outsize influence on our public lands—not only bearing direct harm to lands, water and wildlife from drilling, but stockpiling these lands while excluding the public from enjoying them.

Right now oil and gas companies are hoarding more than 32 million acres of America’s public lands and minerals under lease, and only about one-third of them are in production. At the same time, the industry is sitting on more than 7,500 approved permits to drill on public lands and minerals. These lands are not returning royalties to American taxpayers, yet they are closed off to any of us for recreation, conservation, science or other uses that benefit the public.

Not surprisingly, the effort to privatize public lands is driven in part by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that relies heavily on financing by extractive industry leaders to distribute cookie-cutter legislation to state legislatures in hopes that they will enact bills to roll back fundamental conservation laws. Many of the people pushing for the takeover of America’s public lands are also tied to radical fringe groups who don’t represent mainstream views.  

By mid-January, a House bill (H.R. 621) was introduced by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz identifying 3.3 million acres of America’s public lands across 10 states to be 'disposed of' and sold off.

“What’s worthless to allies of the fossil fuel industry for all except oil and gas extraction has irreplaceable value to the American people for hiking, hunting, camping, fishing and countless other pastimes that Teddy Roosevelt first acknowledged were central to the strength and well-being of this nation,” the Wilderness Society said in a statement responding to the bill. “Today, those outdoor pastimes have a $646 billion value and contribute millions of American jobs to rural communities without harming the lands and waters themselves.”

Miraculously, a little over a week after proposing his land disposal bill, Rep. Chaffetz announced in a midnight Instagram post that his bill would "die." Congressional offices had reportedly been overwhelmed by calls from people who want to keep our wild lands public, including many of Chaffetz's own constituents, who were concerned about the possibility of losing access for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. 

In January, hundreds of citizens showed up at a rally at the state capitol in Helena, Montana, to express support for keeping public lands public. (credit: Scott Brennan, The Wilderness Society)

Rep. Chaffetz did the right thing in listening to an overwhelming tide of constituents who castigated him for such an un-American piece of legislation. But this is just one victory in a broader defense of public lands at large. 

The congressman’s troubling record on public lands issues in general—including his open push to roll back protection for sacred sites like Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument—means the Wilderness Society and many other sportsmen and conservation groups will keep Rep. Chaffetz and his allies under close scrutiny. At a town hall meeting just last week outside of Salt Lake City, Rep. Chaffetz faced an angry and volatile crowd demanding answers to numerous public lands questions.  

Another Chaffetz bill, H.R. 622, would eliminate law enforcement officers from U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, making it even harder for the chronically underfunded agencies to protect wildlife habitat, prevent poaching, preserve cultural sites, prevent reckless off-road vehicle use and otherwise take care of the nearly 440 million acres of land these two agencies collectively manage. 

Furthermore, an association of federal agents and officers said it "vehemently disagrees" with Chaffetz's proposal because it will put public and federal workers at risk and embolden anti-public lands interests like the Bundy family, potentially leading to more violent incidents like the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff. 

In early February, a survey highlighted that many staffers from national wildlife refuges and other public lands feel less safe than in the past, with about one in five saying they, their staff or their families have been threatened or harassed over land management disputes. Slashing law enforcement in such places only emboldens anti-federal vigilantes like the Bundys to trash the land and resources we all treasure and take the law into their own hands.

Meanwhile, Congress is expected to further cut funding for conservation programs and land agencies, already sitting at less than 1 percent of the federal budget. We must keep our eyes open and our voices loud for the wild places that can’t speak for themselves.

Public lands, waters and wildlife unite us across political and socio-economic lines. Hear why these places matter and raise your own voice for Our Wild today.

[Update, March 3, 2017: House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop made a late-breaking House budget request to use $50 million in taxpayer dollars to immediately facilitate the takeover of America’s shared public lands by states, saying they "create a burden for surrounding states and communities." Matt Keller, senior director of conservation with The Wilderness Society, said, "The American people spoke loudly in January when they swiftly and decisively ended Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s push to sell off 3.3 million acres of our public lands, and now Chairman Bishop is burying a new attack in the folds of the budget process, hoping nobody will notice.]

Brad Brooks is the associate director in The Wilderness Society’s Idaho office. He is a lifelong hunter, climber and mountain biker on America’s shared public lands.

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