The House of Representatives approved a provision Tuesday to make it easier to transfer federal lands to the states.
The language, which according to the Washington Post was authored by federal lands management critic and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Ron Bishop, R-Utah, and added to a larger rules package, prohibits the Congressional Budget Office from taking into account lost federal revenue from oil or gas drilling, logging, grazing, recreation or other uses when it decides whether a piece of legislation would contribute to the federal deficit. Under the current rules, lost revenue from these sources would be considered when scoring a bill’s fiscal impact.
The rules package passed the House on a mostly party-line vote, with Idaho Republicans Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador both voting for it.
“There is no disputing Congressman Simpson is a supporter of public lands,” spokeswoman Nikki Wallace said in an email. “However, given that many of our rural communities are surrounded by or interface with federal lands, there are many situations where small land transfers make sense for administrative purposes. Small towns shouldn’t be penalized by agency rules that allow for little leeway in making sensible transfers. Rigid scorekeeping and strict adherence to rules makes it very difficult to make sensible transfers that benefit local communities. If a rural town were to need a small piece of BLM land adjacent to a highway for a school bus turnaround, it makes sense that non-controversial legislation should be able to accomplish this. You would be hard-pressed to find someone that disagrees with a minor change that carries meaningful and practical implications. Congress still has the ability to look at the intent of specific land proposals and consider the impacts to our public lands.”
Labrador spokesman Dan Popkey declined to comment on the vote.
Bishop spokesman Parish Braden told The Hill that federal lands themselves can burden the surrounding communities.
“Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues, as well as reduce the need for other taxpayer-funded federal support, either through Payments in Lieu of Taxes or other programs like Secure Rural Schools,” Braden said. “Unfortunately, current budget practices do not fully recognize these benefits, making it very difficult for non-controversial land transfers between governmental entities for public use and other reasons to happen.”
Environmental groups condemned the amendment.
“As the 115th Congress enters its first week, some of our elected officials are wasting no time in paving the way to steal our outdoor heritage,” Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said in a statement. “Buried in a litany of other measures is language inserted by Congressman Bishop that would make it easier to give away America’s public lands. For sportsmen, this provision sticks out like a sore thumb. If it’s a fight they want, they’ve got one coming — and I’m betting on public lands hunters and anglers.”
Labrador has been a vocal advocate for putting more federal lands under state control, including sponsoring legislation to transfer some Forest Service parcels to state management, while Simpson, whose work to protect the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness won him praise from many conservation groups, has been more skeptical of this approach.
With both houses of Congress and now the presidency to be under Republican control on Jan. 20, environmental groups are expecting some tough fights in Washington this year. While both president-elect Donald Trump and his expected Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke have publicly opposed transferring federal lands to the states, the national Republican platform approved this summer calls for just that. Zinke, a Republican congressman from Montana, quit his post as a convention delegate over the issue.
“Less than one day in and Congressional Republicans are already greasing the skids to give away or sell off America’s public lands, forests, and wildlife refuges,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. “What’s worse, politicians are using smoke and mirrors to hide the cost of stealing away our public lands, while ripping off American taxpayers in the process. President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee to run the Interior Department, Montana Representative Ryan Zinke, have disavowed attempts to seize our public lands. This is their first chance to show how serious they are by standing up to attacks on our parks and public lands in the U.S. House of Representatives.”