Climate

The Quiet Plan To Sell Off America’s National Forests

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Allegheny National Forest.

A proposal to seize and sell off America’s national forests and other public lands could make its way into the House GOP’s budget resolution when it is announced this week.

In a recent memo to the House Budget Committee, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, proposed that America’s public lands be transferred to state control. He then requested $50 million of taxpayer money to be spent to enable transfers to “start immediately.” The memo states that public lands “create a burden for the surrounding states and communities,” and “the solution is to convey land without strings to state, local, and tribal governments.”

Bishop’s plan and similar proposals to give away America’s public lands are controversial. A majority of voters in those regions believe the proposals would likely result in states having to raise taxes, open prized recreation areas to drilling and mining, or sell lands to private interests to cover the substantial costs of management.

Despite these concerns — and despite the fact that these proposals are extremely expensive, unpopular, and most importantly, unconstitutional — there is a strong likelihood that Rep. Bishop’s request will be included in the House GOP’s budget, thanks to intensive lobbying efforts by a handful of right wing politicians and special interest groups.

As reported by E&E Daily, the American Lands Council (ALC), an organization founded by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R), hired a lobbyist at the end of last year to “educate congressional lawmakers on the benefits of relinquishing federal lands to the states.” Federal lobbying disclosure forms show that the ALC paid the lobbyist, Michael Swenson, $150,000 for just three months of lobbying work.

Swenson, whose other clients include a Utah mining company, has denied being paid the sum. He told E&E the lobbying disclosure form was a “mistake,” and that he was paid just $20,000 in the last quarter of 2014.

ALC’s lobbying payments have drawn additional scrutiny because the organization’s budget is dependent on taxpayer money, contributed by county governments in the West. According to the Center for Western Priorities (CWP), 47 county governments have spent a total of more than $219,000 for ALC membership. Most of these county governments receive substantial federal grant money through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program (PILT), raising questions about whether American taxpayer dollars are being channeled to fund lobbying of the federal government. A federal law, known as the Byrd Amendment, prohibits the use of federal funds from a grant to be used for lobbying federal officials.

A recent flood of state-level proposals to seize and sell off America’s public lands is the result, in part, of efforts by the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to disseminate ‘model legislation’ to conservative lawmakers in Western states.

The state of Utah is thus far the only state to have passed such a measure, however. In 2012, the Utah legislature passed a bill demanding public lands be transferred to state control by December 2014. The state plans to sue the federal government and is currently accepting proposals to launch a $2 million fight.

Politicians in nine other states are also developing and advancing similar legislative proposals, supported by expensive taxpayer-funded studies. According to a CWP analysis, Western states have spent a total of $816,000 of taxpayer funds on such studies in recent years.

Whether Rep. Bishop’s proposal makes it into the House GOP budget or not, the Congressman has made it clear that disposing of national forests and public lands will be one of his top priorities as chair. The House Republican majority is expected to release its 2016 budget resolution this week.

Claire Moser is the Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser.