Threats to Public Land Looming

By John McFerrin

Our public lands are in peril.  There are moves afoot to transfer those lands to the states or sell off public lands.

The idea that the federal government should not own large tracts of land is, of course, not new.  The public career of Cliven Bundy and standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management in Nevada were based upon his belief that the United States government did not legitimately own the land he was using.  The same idea animated those who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

There had also been sporadic efforts in Congress.  In a large and diverse body such as Congress, there will always be a variety of views, including the view that states or private entities should own and manage public lands.  These views might occasionally find their way into a proposed resolution or an introduced bill but they were always considered fringe ideas, not something that might actually become law.

Now those ideas are becoming more mainstream, in Congress at least if not in the population as a whole.  The possibility of the federal government divesting itself of public lands is becoming a topic of serious conversation.

There are several threats to public lands, one of which has already happened.

The one that has already happened is the rules change that makes it easier for the federal government to transfer public land to the states.  Until now, lawmakers trying to transfer federal land to the states have had to offset the value of that land by making cuts or generating revenue elsewhere.  This made transferring land to the states difficult and had helped thwart such attempts in the past.  The new rule change allows for land transfers cost-free. Typically laws are scored to see how they would affect the federal budget and their cost to taxpayers. This new rule will automatically score all land transfer measures as budget neutral.  That means Congress could be able to give state governments land that today belongs to all Americans—without reimbursement.

One that has begun—but is not making much progress so far—is the State National Forest Management Act of 2017.  Its purpose, as introduced, is “[t]o authorize States to select and acquire certain National Forest System lands to be managed and operated by the State for timber production and for other purposes under the laws of the State, and for other purposes.”  It was introduced in early January, has only one sponsor, and has not been taken up by any committee.  It is the same as an Act that was introduced in the last Congress and went nowhere so it may suffer the same fate this time.

A more plausible threat to public lands—or at least one tool to protect them—is the bill to amend the Antiquities Act.  The Antiquities Act gives the President the authority to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands as “national monuments.” It has been used by almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt to protect hundreds of millions of acres.  Five of the nation’s 10 most­visited national parks — Grand Canyon, Zion, Olympic, Teton and Acadia, each attracting millions of people a year — were first protected by presidents using the Antiquities Act.

Now the Act is under attack.  The 2016 Republican platform called for amending it so as to give states the right to block the president from designating monuments.  If this happens, it will effectively repeal the Act.

Now a bill has been introduced in the United States Senate which would do just that.  It would require that any national monument must be approved by Congress and the legislature of the state where it would be located.  Although the Senate has taken no action, the bill has 28 sponsors (including Senator Capito) and, thus, must be considered more than a fringe idea.

This would have an immediate impact in West Virginia because of the current proposal for a Birthplace of Rivers Monument.  A coalition of businesses, groups (including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy), and individuals have proposed that an area within the Monongahela National Forest be considered for Monument status.  Any amendment to the Antiquities Act would have a dramatic impact upon that proposal.

Sale of Public Lands—Where Stands Mr. Trump?

Divestiture of public lands is not a Donald Trump initiative.  In a pre-election interview he was asked about the possibility of the federal government transferring lands to states and divesting those lands.  He said,

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.

Since the election he has not tweeted on the subject or supported any effort to privatize public lands.

There is no indication of how firmly held his beliefs are.  He did not campaign on this issue.  When he said the words “big, beautiful” the next word was much more likely to be “wall” than it was to be “forest” or “canyon.”  (An informal tally:  “forest”—0; “canyon”—0; “wall”—one bazillion).  So far, however, he stands with those who seek to protect public lands.