A group of Republican congressmen this week took an aggressive step in a campaign to seize and sell off America’s national forests and other public lands.
In launching what they are calling the “Federal Land Action Group,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) plan to develop a legislative framework for giving states control of America’s public lands. Calling the federal government a “lousy landlord for western states,” Rep. Stewart said “we simply think the states can do it better.”
Bishop, who is also chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that “this group will explore legal and historical background in order to determine the best congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners.”
This latest effort to transfer or dispose of national forests and public lands was immediately blasted by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, as being unwise, unpopular, and illegal.
“Building on the ideas of extremists like Cliven Bundy, House Republicans have formed a group to explore the idea that if you see a federal resource you like, maybe you can just take it,” said Grijalva in a statement. “There is no legal authority to give these lands away to developers and no chance the American people will support such a scheme.”
In addition to Bishop and Stewart, the group’s “Congressional team” includes Representatives Mark Amodei (R-NV), Diane Black (R-TN), Jeff Duncan (R-SC), Cresent Hardy (R-NV), and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). Bishop, who has long advocated for state seizure of America’s national forests and other public lands, has recently found more creative ways of pushing his Cliven Bundy-inspired agenda forward.
Earlier this week, Bishop attached a provision to a defense spending bill to delay the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act for at least 10 years. In addition to putting the bird at high risk of extinction, the measure would turn over management authority of 60 million acres of the bird’s habitat on U.S. public lands to individual states — an area 27 times the size Yellowstone National Park.
In a letter to House leaders, 26 environmental groups called the provision a “brazen power grab of federal lands.”
Rep. Bishop and his “Federal Land Action Group” are not alone in their efforts to seize and sell America’s public lands. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Lisa Murkowski, have been vocal proponents of such proposals in the U.S. Senate. Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) also recently introduced the “American Land Act,” which would force the Department of the Interior to sell one-third of the land managed by the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and use the “potentially billions” of dollars in revenue for transportation infrastructure.
Despite being considered unconstitutional by legal scholars, similar proposals to seize control of America’s public lands have been introduced by right-wing lawmakers in eleven western states — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and Washington.
Thanks to support from the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and front groups for the oil industry’s PR giant, Richard Berman, as well as increasing lobbying by the Utah-based American Lands Council, these proposals have now gained prominence at the national level.
Even with the increase in activity, bipartisan public opinion research has shown that Western voters from all political parties oppose these proposals, and believe that transferring control of public lands to state governments would result in reduced access for recreation, and the lands being sold off to the highest bidder to cover extreme costs of management.
Nonetheless, Representatives Bishop and Stewart are moving forward with the Action Group as a “starting point,” and plan to hold a series of forums “with the goal of introducing transfer legislation.” No timeline has been announced for the forums or the group’s next steps.
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.