The House just made it a lot easier to sell off national parks

The House now officially values public lands at $0.

The East Fork of the Jemez River cuts through Valles Caldera National Preserve, N.M. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan
The East Fork of the Jemez River cuts through Valles Caldera National Preserve, N.M. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan

The U.S. House of Representatives just made it easier for the government to sell or give away national parks, national forests, and other public lands.

A new rule, written by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), establishes as fact that any legislation to dispose of public lands and natural resources would cost taxpayers exactly $0. This paves the way for the new Congress to get rid of vast swaths of public lands — all at the expense of the American taxpayer.

Under Congressional Budget Office accounting rules, the House is required to account for the cost of any legislation it considers. Now, the House does not need to even estimate any financial losses from giving away public land. Bills to dispose of public land will skip several steps in the normal legislative process, coming up for a vote without any discussion of the costs and benefits. The House approved the rules change by a vote of 234 to 193 on Tuesday.

Since the move applies only to House rules, it is not subject to approval by the Senate or a presidential signature. It is effective immediately.

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) said in a statement just prior to the vote. “This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”

The procedural shortcut appears to apply equally to all types of public land. For example, national parks from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, as well as federal buildings such as the Pentagon, could all be given away without consideration of the cost to American taxpayers.

The idea to dispose of public lands reflects the alliance between anti-government extremists, led by Cliven Bundy, and members of the anti-parks caucus, who don’t acknowledge the federal government’s authority over national public lands. Instead, these groups want to see public lands given to the states. In reality, states would likely be unable to shoulder the burden of managing these lands — from fighting wildfire to cleaning up abandoned mines — and would ultimately sell them to private interests.

The House rules change was met with sharp criticism from conservation and watchdog groups.

“Less than one day in and Congressional Republicans are already greasing the skids to give away or sell off America’s public lands, forests, and wildlife refuges,” Jen Rokala, executive director for the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement. “What’s worse, politicians are using smoke and mirrors to hide the cost of stealing away our public lands, while ripping off American taxpayers in the process.”

More than 90 percent of voters in Nevada, Colorado, and Montana believe public lands are an essential part of their state’s economy, according to polling by Rokala’s group. In addition, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found that oil and gas drilling on public lands is one of the federal government’s largest sources of non-tax revenue.

Moreover, the Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation, which largely takes place on public lands, is responsible for a $646-billion industry that supports 6.1 million direct jobs.

As recently as four weeks ago, Congress acknowledged the importance of the outdoor recreation economy. Both the House and Senate unanimously passed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act (the Outdoor REC Act), which directs the Department of Commerce to measure the value of outdoor recreation economy.

But Tuesday’s vote asserts that public lands have absolutely no value to the American public — discounting the very economic driver the Outdoor REC Act aims to measure.

Both President-elect Trump and his Interior Secretary nominee, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) have been vocal opponents of selling off America’s public lands. Zinke resigned from the GOP platform-writing committee last summer after it included language supporting the disposal of public lands. However, Zinke voted in favor of the rules change that would streamline public land disposal.

It remains unclear where he will stand on this issue if confirmed as Interior Secretary. A date for Zinke’s confirmation hearing has not been set.