by James R. Skillen, UPK author of Federal Ecosystem Management; Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife (2015)
The 115th Congress began with housecleaning. After battling the Obama administration for years, the Republican majority anticipated a fast-moving legislative agenda supported by President Trump. They started by brushing aside rules they felt hindered legislative work and by wielding the Congressional Review Act against President Obama’s late regulations. Voters looked on with a sense of relief or consternation.
Public lands are certainly part of the Republican agenda, both as a target for deregulation and as a resource for increasing oil, gas, and coal development. But could there be something even more significant in the works? Could Republicans be planning a campaign to sell or give away millions of acres of federally owned land? One Guardian article warned on January 19 that “Republican lawmakers have quietly laid the foundation to give away Americans’ birthright.” Specifically, they revised House rules so that public land sales and transfers will be treated as “cost free” actions that do not require budgetary review or offsets. This means one less hurdle for wholesale public land disposal. Elevating these fears, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced H.R. 621 on January 24 to sell 3.3 million acres of federal land to the states.
Has Chaffetz opened the floodgate of public land sales? If so, it would hardly constitute a political surprise. Western Republicans have criticized federal land ownership and management for decades, most famously in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Republicans took control of Congress is 1995, they proposed selling public lands to balance the budget. A number of state governments in the West repeatedly challenged the constitutionality of federal land ownership during the Obama administration. The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 was only an extreme example of private opposition to federal land ownership. Republicans even made public land disposal part of the platform for the Republican National Convention, writing “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.” Republicans have long called for public land sales, and their control of both Congress and the White House has given them an unparalleled opportunity to act.
While the possibility of large-scale public land sales is real, history suggests that it remains unlikely. While Republicans have shown unified frustration with federal land management, they do not have a unified alternative. Some, particularly Tea Party Republicans, genuinely want to see large areas of public lands transferred to the Western states, which would manage them for a higher rate of economic return. Others, including many currently calling for public land sales, are not actually interested in land ownership; they are interested in land use. Members of Congress will likely find that steps to shift power away from environmental organizations and toward resource development interests will please both groups of Republicans, while proposals to sell large areas of federal lands will divide their constituencies and undermine their support.
Mr. Chaffetz found this when he proposed selling 3.3 million acres of federal land and faced immediate, bipartisan opposition. And he should not have been surprised. Last summer President Trump’s nominee to head the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, resigned from the committee drafting the Republican National Convention platform over its position on public land sales, and Donald Trump, Jr. has been outspoken in support of public lands remaining public. Zinke and Trump, Jr. represent millions of Republican outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen who benefit from and support federal land ownership. And their opposition to H.R. 621 is particularly striking when one considers that it focused primarily on scattered tracts, rather than large, contiguous units of public lands, and that the Clinton administration initially selected these lands. Indeed, opposition reflects the remarkable level of distrust that Democrats and Republicans alike have in Congress to serve the national interest through land sales and exchanges.
So it seems unlikely that Congress will liquidate federal land holdings. It is far more likely that the Republican majority will make significant changes in public land planning and management to reduce environmental regulation and increase resource production, striking down administrative processes and requirements that stand in their way. For example, Republicans in the House voted to repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s new planning rules, Planning 2.0, which were finalized at the end of the Obama administration. The new rules were driven, in part, by frustration with the cost and length of land use planning and the additional financial and temporal costs of subsequent litigation. To address these problems, the rules require greater public participation, including earlier and more frequent participation; they emphasize landscape-scale planning issues that transcend public land boundaries; they require BLM to take scientific measurements of resource baselines that will be used to assess management actions in the future; etc. These rules, the BLM hoped, would produce more robust plans that stand a better chance of surviving legal challenge and give land managers better footing when they make subsequent decisions.
As Republican critics understand correctly, though, Planning 2.0 will impact the current balance of power in public land planning. Though it is difficult to predict the exact impacts of Planning 2.0, two things seem clear. First, it would likely make participation more accurately reflective of diverse interests in the public lands, giving environmentalists and resource developers, local citizens and national organizations, a place at the table. Second, it would shift the focus of planning from land uses to land and resource conditions, and this is a shift that environmentalists have sought for decades. Because of these and other potential impacts, the Western Governors Association, the oil and gas industry, and the livestock industry all opposed Planning 2.0, arguing that it would unfairly privilege environmental protection and the voice of national organizations over economic development and the voice of local communities. As congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) put it, Planning 2.0 “represents a federal power grab that ignores expert knowledge and undermines the ability of state and local governments to effectively manage resources and land use inside their own districts.”
If history is at all predictive, the most important battles waged by the Republican majority in Congress and the White House will not be over selling public land; they will be battles over public land planning and management. And it is here that they are most likely to build their legacy of reduced regulation and increased resource development.
James R. Skillen is assistant professor of environmental studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.