Election Divides GOP On Whether To Seize And Sell America’s Public Lands

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In the run-up to Tuesday’s elections, each week seemed to bring a new Republican candidate for federal and state office advocating for America’s national forests, wildlife areas and other public lands to be seized by the states or auctioned off to the highest bidder. Even the Republican National Committee (RNC) passed a resolution endorsing these extreme proposals earlier this year.

Not all western state Republicans stood by their party’s platform in this election cycle, however. High-profile candidates who won competitive races in the West deliberately distanced themselves from their party’s platform, or avoided taking a stance on the issue altogether during their campaigns. At the same time, a number of western Republicans in competitive races who chose to embrace their party’s extreme stance came up short on Election Night.

Proposals to seize and sell federal land are not only fundamentally unconstitutional, but also would cost state taxpayers millions of dollars, and in many cases, force the sale of public lands to the highest bidder.

Land grabs are also deeply unpopular among voters. Recent public opinion research, conducted by a bipartisan polling team, found that the majority of Western voters firmly oppose proposals to transfer America’s national forests and public lands to state ownership.

One winning candidate who backed away from his initial stance on seizing and selling off public lands was Montana Congressional candidate Ryan Zinke (R). Zinke, who had been an outspoken supporter of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, which would have required the sale of public lands to reduce the deficit, was forced to revise his position after his Democratic opponent ran a popular ad criticizing his stance.

The ad, set to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s famous “This Land is Your Land,” elevated the issue to a central debate on the campaign. Zinke then clarified that “he supports the ‘framework of the Ryan Budget,’ but opposes selling off public land,” as the Great Falls Tribune reported.

Other candidates in states where land transfer has emerged as an issue declined to take a stance on public lands altogether, and instead focused their messaging on increasing land access for sportsmen and the need for states to play a larger role in land management decisions. When asked directly what his thoughts were on the land transfer movement in a debate, Colorado Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner avoided saying whether or not he supports the idea, stating evasively that: “the fact is we ought to be protecting our public lands, and making sure that we have responsible regulations about public land,” and that “in certain circumstances [we need] to allow different kinds of uses on our public lands.”

Before the election, ThinkProgress identified 13 candidates for federal office as clear supporters of seizure or sell-off of public lands. Among these, the candidates running in non-competitive districts and states won their elections Tuesday, but candidates in tight races were not so lucky.

Voters rejected former Congressman Bob Beauprez, candidate for Governor of Colorado, County Commissioner Tootie Smith, who ran to replace Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, and State Rep. Andy Tobin, challenger to Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who had each stood by their positions advocating the seizure and selloff of public lands.

For the Republican Party, the growing internal debate over whether America’s public lands should be seized and sold represents a choice between the conservation values of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and the power of a special interest-driven agenda. Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar observed in August that the RNC’s endorsement of land grabs would “cause Teddy Roosevelt to turn over in his grave.”

With the debate escalating over whether public lands should be seized or sold, candidates who dodged the issue but won on Tuesday will likely soon have to say whether they are with the party of Teddy Roosevelt or Cliven Bundy.