Public lands advocates claimed a crucial win last week! An outpouring of citizen opposition forced one of the nation’s most prominent public lands privatization boosters to withdraw support for his own bill calling for the sale of over 3 million acres of public lands across the west.The victory was an incredible example of people from across the country uniting in a common cause and making their voices heard to protect public lands.
When Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act (H.R.621), intense opposition sprang up from a broad coalition of public lands advocates, conservationists, hunters, anglers, and other elected officials. Last week also saw massive pro-public lands rallies in Montana and New Mexico. In addition to rallies, thousands contacted their elected officials, then reached out to get support from recreation and hunting businesses.
Of the 3.3 million acres proposed to be sold, over 70,000 acres were in Oregon. The specific land to be sold could not be identified on a map, as the bill was based on a 20 year old survey that only provided acreage numbers by county and some descriptions. Since the bill’s sponsor has pulled his support, these specific lands are safe for now; however, this legislation was a shot across the bow, demonstrating the growing influence of the “anti-Parks caucus” in Congress.
In their first day back in Congress this year, House Republicans paved the way for the Chaffetz bill and future land give-aways by officially designating the value of all public lands to be $0. This move allows House members to bypass accounting rules that require an analysis of the financial losses associated with disposing of publically owned land, which makes it easier to sell off vast swaths of the American west.
Proposals like the Chaffetz bill to sell off public lands to private interests are perhaps the most direct threat posed to public ownership, but they are not the only threat. Armed standoffs have given this movement national attention and in recent years, there has been a wave of legislative proposals in DC and state capitals to transfer the ownership of federal land to state governments. The idea of transferring land to the states was once a fringe idea rejected by the mainstream left and right; however, this past summer the idea was officially endorsed by the GOP platform and continues to receive support from industry-friendly members of Congress.
At first, transferring land to the states may seem benign, so why are corporate interests and anti-government groups working together to build the land transfer movement? These groups seek land transfers because they know that states don’t have the regulatory or financial capacity to adequately manage large amounts of land in the west, and therefore they are often forced to privatize. Put simply, eliminating federal ownership of these landscapes will inevitably lead to less public access and the increased exploitation of natural resources, which is attractive to states like Utah where federal environmental regulations are seen as cumbersome and unfriendly to development.
Despite these growing threats, polls show strong support for public lands, partially due to the billions of dollars and millions of jobs that come from the recreation economy. Oregon Wild has fought against privatization efforts for many years, and recently we hired an organizer to help grow the pro-public lands movement in our state. This coming year, we will need advocates of the planet like you to stand up and get loud to ensure public lands stay in public hands.