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Public criticism forces U.S. congressman to back off public land disposal bill

  • The law would have allowed the sale of 3.3 million acres (1.34 million hectares) of public lands ‘deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers.’
  • Supporters, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who introduced the bill to the House of Representatives, said that getting rid of the excess lands would provide the federal government with cash and rural communities with development opportunities.
  • Chaffetz pulled the bill after an outcry from conservation groups and the public concerned about the loss of federal lands.

Just days after reintroducing a bill to the House of Representatives to sell off millions of acres of federal lands, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz pulled his support, citing his own “love” for public lands as a hunter and the opposition of those who feel the same.

“I hear you and HR 621 [the bill in question] dies tomorrow,” Chaffetz said in a Instagram post on Feb. 1 of the Republican congressman from Utah in hunting clothes and holding a dog.

Chaffetz also said that “…groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message.”

The law that Chaffetz put before the House on Jan. 24 would have allowed the sale of 3.3 million acres (1.34 million hectares) of public lands “deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers,” according to a statement on his website.

Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Arizona. Under its multiple-use and sustained yield mandates, the BLM manages public rangelands for various uses and values, including livestock grazing, recreational opportunities, healthy watersheds, and wildlife habitat. Photo and caption by BLM Arizona/Flickr used under Creative Commons license

“The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities,” he said. In Utah, 132,931 acres (53,795 hectares) could have been sold under the new law, in addition to federally administered parcels in nine other states.

The Wilderness Society applauded the public support that led to Chaffetz’s reversal, and the conservation NGO said that the bill didn’t make conservation or fiscal sense.

“What’s worthless to allies of the fossil fuel industry for all except oil and gas extraction has irreplaceable value to the American people for hiking, hunting, camping, fishing and countless other pastimes that Teddy Roosevelt first acknowledged were central to the strength and well-being of this nation,” said Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director at the Wilderness Society, in an earlier statement.

“Today, those outdoor pastimes have a $646 billion value and contribute millions of American jobs to rural communities without harming the lands and waters themselves,” Rowsome added, citing figures tabulated by the Outdoor Industry Association.

Calf Creek in the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Former President Barack Obama listed the area a National Monument late in his second term. Rep. Jason Chaffetz and other lawmakers have urged President Trump to rescind that designation. Photo by BLM/Flickr used under Creative Commons license

President Donald Trump has made several moves that worry environmental groups in his first few weeks in office, including restricting public communication by federal agencies engaged in climate change research and greenlighting negotiations for two embattled oil pipelines through the central United States. The Wilderness Society sees Chaffetz’s actions as more of the same.

“Trump’s allies in Washington laid the tracks for this land takeover scheme the moment they started their legislative session, and now they’re driving a locomotive over the American people and our wild natural heritage,” Rowsome said.

Chaffetz was one of the first Republicans to withdraw his support for Trump’s presidential campaign in early October after an Access Hollywood video surfaced with audio of the candidate making lewd remarks about women. Later that month, though, Chaffetz reversed course and said he would cast his vote for Trump.

A second bill introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz would transfer law enforcement responsibility from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to local authorities. Photo by BLM California/Flickr used under Creative Commons license

The Wilderness Society linked the retracted bill with one passed in early January, which requires the Congressional Budget Office to completely discount the monetary value of those federal lands, the organization posted on its website.

Theoretically, if the land is no longer worth any money, state officials could sell it without having to balance out the financial loss that such a transaction would have previously entailed.

Chaffetz has also introduced another bill into the House aimed at transferring law enforcement responsibility from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service to local authorities on federal lands.

“It’s time to get rid of the BLM and [U.S.] Forest Service police,” he said in the statement on his website. “By restoring local control in law enforcement, we enable federal agencies and county sheriffs to each focus on their respective core missions.”

But the Wilderness Society argues in a blog post that the bill will make it “even harder for the chronically underfunded agencies to protect wildlife habitat, prevent poaching, preserve cultural sites, prevent reckless off-road vehicle use and otherwise take care of the nearly 440 million acres of land they collectively manage.”


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