New House Rules Make It Easier to Shift Federal Public Lands to States

Provisions revive 2017 battle that united antagonists in defending access to 650 million acres of public land

LAS VEGAS—The rules package adopted Jan. 9 by the U.S. House of Representatives loosens regulations relating to the transfer of federal public lands, eliminating a required estimate of lost revenues and calculation of costs when ceding control to other governmental entities.

The provision is praised by fiscal conservatives, ranchers, lumber companies, the oil/gas industry, and by at least 10 western state legislatures that insist they can more effectively and efficiently manage public lands than the matrix of federal agencies they say are doing a poor job.

Opponents argue that by making the transfer of federal public lands “revenue neutral,” House Republicans have opened the door to a “divest-and-transfer” sell-off of millions of acres for commercial, industrial, and mineral development that are now enjoyed recreationally by millions of Americans.

Friction between federal agencies managing public lands amid pressures exerted by state and local interests is a 175-year-old theme, especially across the West. But if there is consensus on anything, it is universal criticism of domineering, distant bureaucrats dictating disjointed, clumsy public lands-use policies from thousands of miles away.

When it comes to transferring federal public lands to states, however, there is no such consensus, especially among significant conservative constituencies.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
The federal government owns and manages approximately 650 million acres across the United States, nearly 28 percent of the nation’s land mass and almost half the surface acreage across 11 contiguous western states. (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

For instance, “the hook-and-bullet crowd” of hunters, anglers, shooting enthusiasts—a reliably red voting bloc—shares common ground with long-time antagonists in vehemently opposing any divest-and-transfer proposals of federal lands that they say will surely follow the House “revenue-neutral” rule-change.

That schism is certain to surface among the 2,400 exhibitors and 60,000 visitors expected to attend the world’s largest gathering of the shooting sports, hunting, outdoor recreation, and firearm manufacturing industries, the annual Shooting & Hunting Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, which kicks off its four-day run Jan. 17 in Las Vegas.

The enhanced prospect of states assuming management of federal lands under the rule change is also likely to be discussed during a Jan. 18 SHOT Show forum that will feature six GOP governors—Idaho’s Brad Little, Mississippi’s Tate Reeves, Montana’s Greg Gianforte, Nebraska’s Jim Pillen, Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt, and Wyoming’s Mark Gordon.

Make Conveyance Convenient Again

The federal government owns and manages approximately 650 million acres across the country, nearly 28 percent of the nation’s land mass and almost half the surface acreage across 11 contiguous western states.

More than 95 percent of this land is under the regulatory control of four U.S. agencies—the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (193 million acres), and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (244 million acres), Fish & Wildlife Service (89 million acres), and National Park Service (80 million acres).

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, says “anti-public lands extremists” in the chamber are making it easier to “give away our public lands for nothing in return.” (Bonnie Cash-Pool/Getty Images)

In Section 3 (g) of the 55-page rules package adopted by the new Republican-controlled House on Jan. 9, it states on pages 23-24, the “conveyance of federal land to a state, local government, or tribal entity, shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.”

The rules eliminate the requirement that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculate the cost to taxpayers—such as the loss of revenues from mineral extraction, grazing, and logging—of any legislation that would transfer public lands to state, local and tribal entities.

The revision—while unlikely to pass muster in the Senate—can be implemented in amendments or riders attached to ongoing budget resolutions and also be used as a regulatory enabler of bills proposing specific federal land transfers.

Democrats objected to precluding the CBO from calculating the value of federal public lands given away with Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, issuing a series of statements claiming “anti-public lands extremists” among the chamber’s Republicans were making it easier to “cheat American taxpayers and give away our public lands for nothing in return.”

House Republicans dismiss what they say is contrived hysteria. Presumptive House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) in media comments and statements insists the rule only applies to conveyances to other government entities and will foster land-use legislation that will benefit taxpayers while retaining public access to lands that will remain public, even if no longer under federal control.

Conservationists, including the “hook-and-bullet crowd,” have their doubts. They warn that cash-strapped states and municipalities could conceivably—and legally—sell off lands transferred by the federal government that were previously protected from private development.

And it’s hardly hysteria, they argue. The same provision installed by Republicans Jan. 9 was also adopted in 2017 when the GOP last controlled the House, spurring a slate of controversial “divest-and-transfer” bills” that were quickly withdrawn in the face of heated, vocal opposition from an array of odd bedfellow organizations and advocacy groups, ranging from hunters to the U.S. Humane Society.

The same battle lines appear to be forming six years later with all awaiting the next shoe-drop—bills proposing the transfer of federal lands to the states.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado was granted protections in 2012 under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which House Republicans unsuccessfully tried to weaken in 2017, and appear poised to target again in the coming two years. (Rockhounds_5)

Deja Vu All Over Again

Between 2013-16, more than 44 Republican-sponsored bills to dilute or delete federal regulatory control on public lands, as well as to divest-and-transfer federal lands, were introduced into Congress.

At the 2016 GOP National Convention, the Republican National Committee adopted a platform plank advocating the transfer of federal land to states. Eventual nominee and future President Donald Trump, however, never expressly endorsed the policy.

After the House adopted former Rep. Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) “budget neutral” provision in its 2017 rules package—the same one re-installed in 2023— 570 million of 650 million federally-administered acres essentially became worthless by regulatory indifference, the mass devaluation a precursor to specific bills proposing land transfers.

Within weeks, numerous such measures were filed, including bills seeking to strip the BLM and Forest Service of law-enforcement authority; to manage 2 million National Forest acres in Alaska solely for timber harvesting; and to give states full authority over conservation plans to restore sage-grouse habitat.

All spurred opposition, but none sparked the broadside of across-the-board backlash that former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) induced with his proposed ‘Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act,’ which called for selling 3.3 million Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acres across 10 states to the highest bidder.

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Epoch Times Photo
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington in this April 29, 2015 photo.  (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Chaffetz’s controversial bill fostered #KeepItPublic and #PublicLandsProud campaigns endorsed by organizations and firearms manufacturers that include many GOP voters in their ranks: The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), Outdoor Alliance, National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF)—which sponsors the annual SHOT Show—Back Country Hunters and Anglers—which includes Donald Trump, Jr., among its members—Trout Unlimited, Quail Forever, National Wildlife Foundation, Kimber, Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation, Remington, the Wilderness Society, Center for Western Priorities, National Bowhunters Association, and the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest grassroots conservation organization with more than 2 million members.

They maintain states’ public lands administration, by statute, emphasizes resource development because, unlike the federal government, states and municipalities must balance their budgets.

For instance, Wyoming’s Constitution requires state trust lands be managed for “long-term growth in value” and “optimum, sustainable revenue production.” The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is statutorily obligated to manage lands in the most “prudent and profitable manner possible.” SITLA cannot consider multiple uses or “the public interest” unless its fiscal obligations to trust beneficiaries are met.

Federal agencies adhere to a multi-use mandate that regards habitat conservation, wildlife stewardship, watershed integrity, historical preservation, and recreational access as equal primacies with oil/gas and mineral extraction, grazing, timber harvesting, and commercial privatization.

Conservationists note even if federal agencies divested control, states would still be required to comply with a complex and expensive matrix of federal environmental laws, endangered species regulations, and inter-state water compacts, assuming financial burdens they do not have the resources to sustain without being forced to sell lands, something they often do.

Federal land transfer proponents argue that state control of public lands would be less costly and more ecologically efficient than how federal agencies must do so under layers of regulations. They argue these bulky bureaucracies also stymie beneficial development with protracted permitting procedures without regard to local needs and concerns.

Supporters say states would be more responsive and better suited to balancing the public interest in protecting endangered species, maintaining watersheds, managing habitat, and ensuring recreational access to public lands while also promoting oil/gas extraction, grazing and timber leases—among other commercial uses—where appropriate to generate jobs and tax revenues.

Among advocacy groups that endorse the overall policy of divesting federal lands if not every bill seeking to do so: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), American Lands Council (ALC), Americans for Prosperity, the Environmental Policy Alliance, Western Energy Alliance, Center for Organizational Research and Education, and, by resolution, as many as 10 Western state legislatures.

The negative response to his bill seeking to sell 3.3 million acres of BLM land was so sharp, so swift, a chastened Chaffetz withdrew it a week after filing it, posting an Instagram mea culpa wearing hunting gear and assuring, “I’m a proud gunowner, hunter and love our public lands.”

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Epoch Times Photo
Critics maintain poor federal land management practices contribute to forest fires throughout the West, including this wildfire in Cleveland National Forest in Southern California in March 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The Case for Federal Divestment

ALEC, the Washington free-market think-tank that frequently drafts model legislation for conservative causes, has crafted a divestment policy based on Utah’s 2012 Land Transfer Act that has been introduced into at least seven western state legislatures demanding control of federal land within their boundaries.

ALEC Federalism and International Relations Task Force Executive Director Karla Jones told The Epoch Times the group “applauds” the rule change and will support bills that “facilitate the conveyance of more federal land, excluding national parks, national monuments, congressionally designated wilderness areas, U.S. military installations and tribal lands, to the states that want that authority.”

Jones said transferring certain types of land now under federal control to states “will ensure that territory is managed by those who have the greatest interest in its preservation and condition and the best understanding of how to care for it.”

There’s plenty of documented evidence refuting claims that federal agencies manage public lands better than states do, she said.

“The states are the optimal environmental and economic stewards of the lands within their borders and recent experience in America’s West underscores this conclusion,” Jones said. “The record-breaking wildfires that decimated New Mexico last spring originated from prescribed burns on federal lands–burns that local officials never would have authorized due to weather and other factors on the ground.

“Hopefully,” she continues, the rule change “will lead to the federal government relinquishing select federal lands under its purview that due to years of mismanagement have become very costly for the federal government to maintain, allowing the states greater access for restoration, recreation and revenue generation.”

Utah-based American Lands Council’s (ALC) “only issue” is “the hopeful transfer of public lands to states,” its Director of Internal Operations Doug Keaton said.

“We’re excited at the prospect that the federal government would even consider disposing of public lands to the states,” Keaton told The Epoch Times. “Land is an asset, but only if it is used for the good of the public, the people.”

To put it bluntly, he said, “The federal government is a terrible landlord. Its management processes are basically [that] 90 percent treat it like a museum, kind of stand back and let Mother Nature do her thing, don’t interfere. That kind of policy has been devastating for the natural environment.”

ALC endorses management that “treats public lands like a garden, as opposed to a museum,” Keaton said. ‘To manage a garden, you harvest what is wrought, you protect what is still growing.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Allowing forests to accumulate undergrowth is causing catastrophic fires, killing millions of animals and destroying habitats for decades, maintains the Utah-based American Lands Council. (Photo courtesy of American Lands Council)

Federal forest management, he said, has been a disaster. “Our forests are overgrown, fuel for fires, because of lack of management. It’s extremely dangerous and the reason for the catastrophic fires we have seen increasingly. Management of the forests has basically gone away. It’s devastating for the states.”

Keaton said selective timber harvest policies already in place on state-owned lands in most states, which generate revenues for schools, could help improve the health of federally-managed forests.

“Here’s the deal: we have the ability through management processes to keep our forests sound and vibrant forever instead of allowing forests to accumulate undergrowth and causing catastrophic fires, killing millions of animals, not to mention the people—we’ve lost a lot of homes in California—that damage forests for decades,” he said. “We don’t have to go through the extremes of management by crisis. Selective harvest makes it better and better and better.”

Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA), which represents 200 companies involved in oil and gas extraction across the West, doesn’t comment on specific public lands transfer proposals but supports the overall policy.

WEA President Kathleen Sgamma told The Epoch Times such proposals are understandably “of keen interest to states, as federal land managers make decisions to lock away federal lands and they isolate state lands that are supposed to be used for productive purposes that suddenly become inaccessible, such as with a presidential monument designation under the Antiquities Act.”

WEA is among groups that would endorse weakening or repealing the 1906 Antiquities Act to un-list the 29 national monuments created by the Obama Administration and dilute the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sgamma said the rule-change should appeal to Congressional reps and state lawmakers across the West “trying to help counties in their district and states navigate the negative consequences of poor federal land management decisions.”

Proponents point to financial analyses that, they say, confirm states could manage public lands for economic development as well as environmental conservation and, in doing so, ensure the sustained viability of habitats, wildlife populations and public access.

Among them: ‘Divided Lands: State vs. Federal Land Management in the West’ by the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) and a 2014 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, ‘Federal Land Ownership Overview and Data,’ which claims Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, and Idaho recouped $4.89 for each dollar it spent managing its public lands compared to 15 cents for each dollar spent by federal agencies on public lands in those states.

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Epoch Times Photo
President Donald Trump signs the Great American Outdoors Act at the White House in August 2020, which aims to upgrade federal public lands funding, including for national parks, and to permanently fund The Land and Water Conservation Fund. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Case Against Federal Divestment

Public lands advocates do not defend federal management practices—they, too, are critical—but they refute divestment proponents’ claims point by point.

States do not have to meet Freedom of Information Act transparency and disclosure requirements imposed on federal agencies, public lands advocates say, meaning the public would not enjoy the input it now has in developing resource management plans for public lands. Under state control, they say, public access to public lands and public participation in public lands management would become … less public.

Opponents say that since state lands must be managed for economic development, states cannot guarantee any federal land they absorb won’t eventually be sold to private interests. In fact, states already do exactly that with public lands.

Utah, for instance, has auctioned off state parks and has established statewide Energy Zones, Timber Agricultural Commodity Zones, and Grazing Agricultural Commodity Zones on state trust lands. This type of system would be extended onto federal lands if transferred into their stewardship.

When Utah’s SITLA sold 391 acres of state trust land in October 2016 to Lyman Family Farms, Inc., for $500,000, the new owners padlocked a gate and posted a “No Trespassing” sign on what had been the only public access to the southeastern part of the 1.3 million acre Bears Ears National Monument.

The Oregon State Legislature in 2017 agreed to sell the state’s oldest forest, the 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest, because its timber revenues had been flagging.

Nevada has almost no state lands left having sold nearly 2.7 million acres by 2016. Idaho has sold 41 percent of its state trust lands and only allows recreation on its remaining 2.4 million acres of trust lands if it doesn’t interfere with revenue-producing activities. In Colorado, only 18 percent of the 2.8 million acres of state lands are open to hunting and fishing.

Once sold, those public lands are forever private, no longer accessible to the public, opponents say.

By making transfers “budget neutral,” the Jan. 9 rule change implies a vast swath of federal public lands have little value, which Outdoor Alliance Communications Director Tania Lown-Hecht in a call-to-action petition appeal called “a maneuver … designed to make it look like giving away or selling public land would cost nothing. In fact, public lands are a large source of government revenue and the foundation of the growing outdoor recreation economy and the well-being of many local communities.”

A U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis 2018 study, the first official measurements of the contribution of outdoor recreation to the U.S. economy, documented that outdoor recreation contributed $412 billion, or 2.2 percent, to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016 and supported nearly 4.6 million jobs.

Government Relations Manager Kaden McArthur at Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement that the Missoula, Montana,-based organization is already warning lawmakers it will oppose any divestment bills.

“BHA strongly opposed this rule change that threatens the integrity of our public estate–lands and waters enjoyed by 70 million hunters and anglers as well as many other outdoor enthusiasts–and we fought to exclude it in the final rules package,” McArthur said.

Denver-based Center for Western Priorities (CWP) maintained surveys show the vast majority of Americans—regardless of political persuasion—want the federal government, not states, to manage public lands.

“These extremist efforts to liquidate and lock up national public lands show that House Republicans are completely out of step with the public on issues affecting the West,” CWP Executive Director Jennifer Rokala told The Epoch Times in an emailed comment. “Westerners want more access to public lands, not less—and they want their public lands protected, not exploited for private profit.”

McArthur said conservationists must maintain “close scrutiny” and be ready to respond when an inevitable divestment bill is proposed.

“Without the need to account for the lost value of our federal lands, the door will be open to misguided legislative proposals that benefit special interests over the American people,” McArthur said.

Lown-Hecht called the rule change “a trial balloon meant to test Americans willingness to see public lands sold off” and said there are several differences between the 2017 House rules package and the one adopted on Jan. 9.

One stipulation in the rule package caps congressional appropriations levels that could cut budgets for federal land management agencies, she noted.

Conservationists say linking public lands leasing to the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Preserve won’t produce more oil or gas, but will lock up lands in drilling leases—while locking out public access—for decades. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The package also includes a provision to debate a bill—the Strategic Production Response Act—that would compel the government to lease more public lands and waters for energy development.

“This provision would require that all non-emergency drawdowns of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve be accompanied by a plan to increase fossil fuel leasing on federal lands,” Lown-Hecht writes. “At a time when the country needs to be transitioning toward renewable energy and reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, requiring the government to arbitrarily lease off public lands and waters for development is the wrong approach.”

Rokala also called attention to this provision, which ties public land leases to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, installed into the package by House Majority Leader, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).

“Such a plan would not increase oil and gas production in the short term, but could, if implemented, lock up millions more acres of public land for drilling decades down the road,” she said.

Rokala reiterated that these potential actions are unpopular and will draw sharp rebuke. “The majority of Westerners want to see less public land locked up for drilling, not more,” she said. “And they certainly don’t want to see their public lands used as a pawn in a political game seeking to place blame for high gas prices on the federal government.”

If past is prologue, “The passage of these provisions is a harbinger of bad ideas to come,” Lown-Hecht writes. “While it may be difficult for lawmakers to pass any legislation this year, especially unpopular proposals given the likely gridlock in Congress, the inclusion of the provision is a clear sign that lawmakers are looking for license to move ahead with selling off public lands.”

The bugle calls are already being sounded.

“Hunters and anglers successfully beat back efforts to sell or transfer public lands (in 2017) and we are ready to do it again,” Joel Webster, vice president of Western Conservation at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told The Epoch Times.

“I can’t imagine why lawmakers would want to wage this battle again—and I can’t think of a better issue to mobilize and engage sportsmen and women.”

John Haughey

John Haughey has been a working journalist since 1978 with an extensive background in local government, state legislatures, and growth and development. A graduate of the University of Wyoming, he is a Navy veteran who fought fires at sea during three deployments aboard USS Constellation. He’s been a reporter for daily newspapers in California, Washington, Wyoming, New York, and Florida; a staff writer for Manhattan-based business trade publications.

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