Public Land, Part Two: What Happened with H. R. 621Posted: February 12, 2017
We can’t all be experts on every outrage that’s going to come along. At Helytimes we’ve taken on the issue of
Our Public Land
the land owned by the US government in the form of national parks, national forests, national monuments, and much more.’ The land we, the American People, own together, in other words.
Part One covered HJ Res 46, which proposes to ease up the rules for oil, gas, and mineral drilling and extraction in our national parkland.
Victory on H. R. 621 and What We Can Learn From It
Meet Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz
You may have heard of him, he was in the news this week catching hell at his town hall:
You may have seen some these videos on Twitter.
Chaffetz is an interesting character.
- Born to a Jewish family in California
- he was the placekicker on BYU’s football team.
- Married a Mormon woman and converted to Mormonism.
- Utah campaign manager for Michael Dukakis in 1988
- at some point he became a Republican. Possibly after meeting Ronald Reagan in 1990 (when, remember, Reagan had a decent degree of dementia)
- Ran an aggressive Tea Party-style primary campaign in 2008 against a longtime Utah Republican, Chris Cannon, and knocked him out
- An aggressive Benghazi investigator
- Was all over the map on Trump: endorsing, unendorsing. In the end he did vote for him
- Has made it difficult for the residents of Washington DC to implement the legalization of marijuana they voted for
Here’s a funny article by Thomas Burr in the Salt Lake City Tribune about Chaffetz involving himself in DC local politics, and then getting payback where some DC politicians are like “fine Utah bitch you gonna tell us how to run our city then help us fix our potholes.”
Today though, we’re going to focus on a bill he introduced that comes up in the town hall.
H. R. 621: Story of a Victory
On Jan 24, Chaffetz introduced H. R. 621, which he titled “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017” which proposed to “dispose” – sell off – some land that is owned by you and me.
Let’s back up.
Do the Republicans Want To Sell Off Our Land?
Is this true? Will Trump / The GOP Sell Off Our Public Land?!
My take: they definitely tried to do so. Given nearly complete power after the 2016 election, it was a top priority for several Republicans.
The rush to sell off public land has been beaten back, for now.
There’s a lot to learn from what went down about how to win against the Republican Party of Donald Trump.
Bias: Love for national lands
I love national lands. I love national parks and national forests and national historic sites and national seashores. I love national monuments and national battlefields.
The best of the United States is on display in a US Park Service uniform.
The National Parks are the gems. Most federal land is not like this at all.
How much land does the federal government
– the US –
– us –
The federal government owns a huge amount of land. For instance, the federal government owns about 84% of the total land area of Nevada.
Here is federal land ownership in California:
The federal government owns 47% of California.
As you can see, this is a much different issue for some states than others. Here is Utah:
The feds own 66.5% of Utah.
The feds own a mere .8% of Rhode Island, mainly coastal scrubland.
Getting all that from this great piece in the Deseret (UT) News by Jackie Hicken.
All told the federal government owns about 28% of the nation’s total surface, 2.27 billion acres.
Isn’t that crazy?
Here is a reasonable position:
The federal government shouldn’t own that much land. It’s not in the Constitution as a job for the federal government to own a buncha land.
Here’s a sample of that take:
Now: I think Lars Larson may even have a point about cutting down forests. Forestry is a science, I’m not well-informed enough to opine on it except to say I believe any forester will tell you burns are part of a life cycle of a forest.
But I disagree with Lars Larson on his first part. Because when we say “the government owns this land,” really we mean we own this land. What could be more “the people’s land” than land we all own together? “Give the people’s land back to the people?” It already is ours!
You and me. The taxpayers. The voters. The government is just us.
What Are The Kinds Of Our Lands?
Here are the percentages of our land, broken down by which agency manages them for us. The “Big Five”:
(getting my data from here, from 2013. The pie would be slightly bigger if we included the Department of Energy, and there’s the Indian reservations, but that’s a whole other thing.)
As you can see, the National Park Service owns a mere 13% of US federal land.
National Park Service handles:
- National Parks
- National Monuments
- National Preserves
Plus battlefields, historic sites, seashores, etc. As I understand it, the only way to get rid of these would be to pass a bill through both houses of Congress and have the president sign it. A cool power of the President is that he can create a National Monument out of any existing federal land. Obama did this often.
The Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture handles:
our National Forests.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service handles:
our National Wildlife Refuges. (Their slice of the pie gets way bigger if you count marine acres.)
There are National Wildernesses, administered by various different folks because they’re usually part of some other land.
There’s lots of land owned by the Department of Defense,
Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army bases and such. The Navy owns a surprising amount of inland land here in California for dropping bombs on.
And there is a bunch of leftover extra land, BLM land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM owns about 47% of the west and one-eighth of the land of the United States.
(Here’s a good Gizmodo article by Wes Siller about this same topic).
The biggest chunk of public land is BLM land
On a trip to California in 2002 or so the Jeppson-Gamez brothers took me to some BLM land. I learned you can shoot a gun and drive a Jeep and do whatever the fuck you want on BLM land. What a great privilege as an American.
Here’s some BLM land in California:
Here are some facts:
A lot of federal land is already used, mined, logged, grazed, and exploited now
There’s logging in national forests, and mining and grazing on BLM land. The major operating principle for BLM land law is “multi use.” Please correct me if I’m wrong, I’m no expert just an interested citizen, but I believe most BLM rules stem from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.
Who should handle this junk land has a long, contentious history
Here is a readable summary of some history on the subject. Who should own and manage land that looks like this?:
Should the states manage it? In the Depression the states didn’t want it.
Fights over which of the multiple uses should be favored come up all the time. The most newsworthy fight in recent years on this topic, the weird Oregon standoff originated with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s dispute with the BLM over grazing his cattle on their lands:
the dispute started in 1993, when, in protest against changes to grazing rules, Bundy declined to renew his permit for cattle grazing on BLM-administered lands near Bunkerville, Nevada. According to the BLM, Bundy continued to graze his cattle on public lands without a permit. In 1998, Bundy was prohibited by the United States District Court for the District of Nevada from grazing his cattle on an area of land later called the Bunkerville Allotment.
Cliven Bundy refused to recognize federal ownership of the land, claiming it rightfully belonged to Nevada, which would maybe be chiller about letting him graze his cattle there.
This being the USA, Cliven’s stand led to, a few years later, Bundy’s sons sitting around with guns at a remote bird refuge while Dad reflected on his views on “the Negro“:
they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?
Where does the GOP Congress stand on federal land ownership?
All over the place, is the answer.
1) the Republican Party’s platform supports returning some federal land to the states.
See here for a Snopes breakdown of this. Here’s the language on federal land transfer in the Republican Platform:
The federal government owns or controls over 640 million acres of land in the United States, most of which is in the West. These are public lands, and the public should have access to them for appropriate activities like hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. Federal ownership or management of land also places an economic burden on counties and local communities in terms of lost revenue to pay for things such as schools, police, and emergency services. It is absurd to think that all that acreage must remain under the absentee ownership or management of official Washington. Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands, identified in the review process, to all willing states for the benefit of the states and the nation as a whole. The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live. They practice boots-on- the-ground conservation in their states every day. We support amending the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish Congress’ right to approve the designation of national monuments and to further require the approval of the state where a national monument is designated or a national park is proposed.
Key word there is “certain”?
I think it’s possible to be passionate about maintaining our treasured national land, and still think some federal land could be better managed by the states.
There’s a lot of wack stuff in the GOP platform, like this:
A Republican administration should streamline personnel procedures to expedite the firing of bad workers, tax cheats, and scammers.
Obviously they’re not worried about the Commander in Chief who won’t release his tax returns. Maybe they will be similarly hypocritical about conveying federally controlled land to states.
2) the Republican Congress changed rules to allow the federal government to give up land while counting it as “budget neutral”
Meet Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah:
A Republican Congressman. He is apparently responsible for a change in House of Representatives rules. Now, I don’t know anything about House budgeting rules. This article, from The Salt Lake City Tribune, written by Juliet Eilperin, seems fair and clear:
Under current Congressional Budget Office accounting rules, any transfer of federal land that generates revenue for the U.S. Treasury — whether through energy extraction, logging, grazing or other activities — has a cost. If lawmakers wanted to give land-generating receipts to a given state, local government or tribe, they would have to account for that loss in expected cash flow. If the federal government conveys land where there is no economic activity, such as wilderness, there is no estimated cost associated with it.
But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman [Rob] Bishop [Republican Congressman of Utah], who backs the idea of providing state and local officials with greater control over federal land, has authored language in the new rules package saying any such transfers “shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending or increasing outlays.”
This was the same rules package that had the ethics loosening thing that got people to call their reps in an effective show of democratic displeasure. Here is a much-tweeted Guardian article on the topic.
There’s lots about public land on Rob Bishop’s website. One issue that seems to bother Rob Bishop in particular is Wilderness Study Areas. And I agree they represent the complex mess of interests when you deal with public land.
A Case Study: How A Wilderness Study Area Becomes A Wilderness
The Wilderness Study Areas are roadless sections of land that the BLM puts a hold on until Congress decides whether to designate them as wilderness or not.
Here’s my personal favorite:
Here’s what Rob Bishop says:
For decades, unsettled land-use designations, such as wilderness study areas, have fueled distrust and acrimony. The uncertainty about the future of these lands created conflict amongst those favoring differing types of uses. The diverse uses of public lands have an important role in making Utah healthy, viable, and inviting. The future of the state depends on a responsible balance of both conservation and development.
There are 86 Wilderness Study Areas in Utah. Myself, I think we should err on the side of keeping wildernesses — once they’re gone, they’ll never come back.
Once you’re a WSA, you either become a Wilderness, federally protected, or you get dropped and you can get chopped up and mineraled and whatnot like any old BLM land. Or you get downgraded to Conservation Area, or some other designation.
The most recent Wilderness Study Area bill I can find in Congress was from last year, when some WSAs inside federal conservation areas were proposed to get dropped. It’s been referred to committee. Here’s an article about it, it sounds like a complicated issue.
You can see how this all gets pretty slow-moving and bureaucratic.
Maybe Rob Bishop has a point
The bottom line of what Rep. Bishop wants to do is made pretty clear on his website:
Congressman Bishop’s views on public land use differ from mine, why should I trust that this is a good faith effort to make new conservation areas?
Congressman Bishop is committed to conservation and economic development as part of the Public Lands Initiative. Throughout his career, Congressman Bishop has had a strong record of both conservation and development. The Cedar Mountain Wilderness area was created in 2006 after Congressman Bishop facilitated a locally-driven, collaborative process similar to the Public Lands Initiative. As a former high school teacher, Congressman Bishop also has pushed for increased energy production in Utah to help support and fund public education. Congressman Bishop is committed to elements of both conservation and development as part of any Public Lands Initiative legislative proposal.
How will the state of Utah benefit from this?
The state of Utah’s public education system will benefit from increased energy and mineral production. Public land users will benefit from the regulatory certainty that comes from congressionally designated lands. Local governments will benefit from revenue generated from multiple use of the land, including recreation, mineral development, and energy production. The outdoor recreation businesses will benefit from the improved certainty about land use and conservation. Future generations will benefit by having responsible policies that utilize the land in the most responsible and reasonable ways that make sense now and into the future.
Proponents argue, however, that taking the federal government out of the picture will help the budget and offer economic benefits for the many communities located near federally-guarded land.
“In many cases, federal lands create a significant burden for the surrounding communities,” Molly Block, spokeswoman for the House Natural Resources Committee, said. “Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues.”
Look, Rob Bishop’s there in Utah. Maybe he knows best what should happen with this land. In tough Western areas he could see roped off federal preserves with no clear purpose, and point out those could be jobs and money for his district, or even just better managed wilderness under local control.
Why shouldn’t disposed-of land be marked as a loss to the federal revenue, when it is? Isn’t this a form of the federal government lying to itself? Lying to its citizens? As an American taxpayer, I don’t see how this rather sneaky accounting change is at all good for me.
Plus what the hell?! This land belongs to us, American citizens. These guys want to sell away our inheritance?
High Desert News‘ Elizabeth Shongren puts it clearly:
Previously, when Congress wanted to transfer public lands managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other federal agency, the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ research arm, calculated the cost to the U.S. Treasury by computing what revenues the lands provide over 10 years, such as grazing fees or oil and gas royalties. Under House rules, before a bill approving a transfer could be adopted, budget cuts would have to be made in other federal programs equal to the value of that land. The rules change eliminates that budgetary barrier to land transfer bills.
I’d have to explore this more, but I have a feeling the House somehow tied itself into knots on spending and budgetary rules to make various political points, and is trying to untangle this particular aspect so they can get rid of public land.
Can the government sell off our treasured national lands?
Yes, but it’s not that easy.
Let’s start with the BLM. Can the BLM sell off their land? From their website:
How are these lands selected for sale?
The law states that the BLM can select lands for sale if, through land use planning, they are found to meet one of three criteria: 1) they are scattered, isolated tracts, difficult or uneconomic to manage; 2) they were acquired for a specific purpose and are no longer needed for that purpose; or 3) disposal of the land will serve important public objectives, such as community expansion and economic development.
The BLM does not offer much land for sale because of a congressional mandate in 1976 to generally retain these lands in public ownership. The BLM does, however, occasionally sell parcels of land where our land use planning finds disposal is appropriate.
Of the Big Five Agencies, only DoD and BLM lost land between 1990 and 2013 (again, source here). In those years, the BLM went down by 24, 777, 190 acres.
Where did those acres go?
This decline in Alaska is largely the result of the disposal of BLM land, under law, to the State of Alaska, Alaska Natives, and Alaska Native Corporations.
Seems fine to me. The Congressional Research Service goes on:
With regard to disposal, the NPS and FWS have virtually no authority to dispose of the lands they administer, and the FS disposal authorities are restricted.
Last big push to dispose of national lands failed. It was HR 350: State National Forest Management Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. Don Young of Alaska.
HR 621: Story of A Victory
Let’s return to Utah rep Jason Chaffetz:
Which land did he try to sell away?
The Potential Land: 35,200 acres of BLM-managed land in the Powder River Basin, which is just east of the Bighorn Mountains, popular with hikers, campers, horseback riders, and hunters.
Here’s what’s going on on BLM land in the Powder River right now:
The Potential Land: 27,300 acres surrounding the Shoshone River, a popular fly-fishing stream in northern Wyoming. Most of the BLM-managed land in Park County is downstream of the town of Cody, which sits between the Big Horn, Owl Creek, Bridger, and Absaroka mountain ranges. Tourism is the town’s primary industry.
The Potential Land: 44,000 acres in a county that’s home to Steens Mountain, a 9,733-foot peak that’s popular with campers and hunters, and Malheur National Forest.
State: New Mexico
The Potential Land: 25,000 acres that contain “cultural resources,” meaning it’s probably home to pueblo ruins. The land is most likely a giant tract southwest of the town of Quemado, and some of the land abuts the Gila National Forest, home to the endangered Mexican gray wolf, the Gila trout, and some of the best elk hunting in the U.S.
The Potential Land: 2,105 acres that is home to endangered species and “historic/cultural resources.” The surrounding area contains the Gunnison Gorge, famous for its rafting and fly-fishing trips, and Uncompahgre National Forest, which is home to elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goat.
The Potential Land: 208,900 acres that contains endangered species, historic resources, and is home to “wetlands/floodplain.” BLM-managed land makes up a giant percentage of land in Elko County, but exactly what land is up for consideration is unclear, or what the effects might be.
The Potential Land: 23,525 acres with mining claims and historic resources. A comment attached to the description notes that the land is “classified as habitat for the Desert Tortoise (a sensitive species).”
Now I heard about this, and I was pissed, because this land belongs to me. And you. And us. Any time we wanna go there, it’s there.
And Jason Chaffetz tried to sell it off.
Well this did not play. Word spread via strong, aggressive groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers:
There were rallies in Helena, MT and Santa Fe, NM which BHA says drew a thousand people.
Chaffetz backed down by last night — six days after introducing the bill:
What can we learn from the defeat (for now) of HR 621?
- Strong, organized, motivated, attentive citizens can win, easily, on issues that matter.
- Play to a politician’s fears. Jason Chaffetz got to Congress by primarying a guy in his own party. He’s got to watch his back constantly. His greatest fear has got to be somebody doing to him what he did to Chris Cannon, outrunning him on the right.
- Push the pushable. Chaffetz wasn’t moved by people who would never vote for him. He was moved by hunters and fishermen, people who probably would vote for him, as long as he doesn’t fuck them on something they care about.
- Look at the focus on these groups: bow-hunters, meat-eating hunters. They have clear interests, goals, and passions. They follow their issues and inform each other.
- Powerful allies. Look at the sponsors for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. These are big corporations with big interests in keeping their customers happy and hunting and fishing. Yeti coolers has a partnership with MeatEater.com. What are rich companies that have interests that could align with yours?
- Specific targets. They learned something from all that bow-hunting.
- See how fast and aggressively they responded to the slightest hint of a challenge and you can get an answer to the seemingly baffling question of why gun control bills get crushed so easily. Strong, organized people are paying attention to the slightest threat to their gun rights and they do not let up.
The Trump hurricane has achieved an effect of constantly shifting focus. When we compare what bow-hunters did to the stammering, confused, bafflement of the Hollywood libtards we follow on Twitter, and my own flabbergasted reactions, we realize we have much to learn from Texas bow-hunters on how to stay focused on a few issues that matter to us most.
The biggest lesson:
This issue brought together, on the same side, Joyce Carol Oates:
and these kind of guys:
And the bros on the Texas Bowhunter forums.
They’re both passionate on the same side on this issue.
For me, the strongest takeaway is don’t insist on too much ideological purity.
Build coalitions on issues you care about.
That is the way to win in politics.
Plus who do you think Jason Chaffetz is most scared of?
I’m guessing it’s this kinda guy? (seen here killing a huge deer with a bow and arrow).
This guy and I may have different ideas about what to do with the land we share.
But we share an interest. We can team up.
One of the most illuminating things I read about the election was “David Wong”‘s piece on Cracked.com about the rural vs. urban divide. Here I am very far from Powder River, WY. The odds of me visiting it in the next ten years are small (but real). But here I am allied with people who live near there and use it all the time.
Gotta Hear Both Sides
Look, it’s fair to say maybe we should sell off some public land. The clearest expression I found of this ambiguity was put up by this poster on TexasBowhunter.com — I hope user 175gr7.62 won’t mind me quoting him, I think it’s a valid take (encourage you to read him in context):
I’m torn on it. The Constitutional side of me says the Fed should have never owned it anyway. The Constitution says the government can acquire and retain land necessary for carrying out its enumerated powers. This includes parcels for military bases, post offices and buildings to house federal employees undertaking enumerated functions. I don’t think anything the BLM or Forest Service does counts as anything enumerated. Several Supreme Court cases have said the govt can own it but I think that’s just case law.
The hunter in me said it could be bad if the Feds sell the land because it could be bought by a private citizen who can then prevent its use. That being said, if they sell it and I don’t have the money to buy it that’s my fault…I should have gotten a better education or made better investment decisions.
Reasonable people can disagree on how public land should be managed and who should managed it.
What bothers me, and what puts me on edge, is the sneakiness of what Bishop and Chaffetz appear to be doing.
And the misguided priorities. This is the first thing they got to post-election.
Well, Chaffetz at least got called to the carpet for it.
A Passionate Plea
Here’s a full video of Jason Chaffetz’s town hall. Listen to this guy at 11:39 say our free public lands are all he has.
Please write to us (helphely at gmail or in the comments) if we got something wrong or you have a strong take.
These are complicated issues, I did my best and in good faith but it’s easy to make an error.
In our Next Installment:
Part Three: Strange Allies.
And why this:
is better than this: