The U.S. Senate is expected to vote in the coming days on a proposal that would give Western governors unprecedented power over the management of national forests and American public lands in their states, including the power to veto plans to restore forest health, reduce wildfire risk, and expand access for hunting and fishing.
The amendment’s sponsors, Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and James Inhofe (R-OK) say their provision is aimed at blocking or lifting protections for three at-risk wildlife species: the lesser prairie chicken (a rangeland bird whose habitat has declined by an estimated 84 percent), the American burying beetle (an endangered insect that is found near the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline), and the greater sage grouse (a ground-dwelling bird whose population across the West has dropped more than 55 percent since 2007).
If passed, the amendment would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from giving Endangered Species Act protections to the greater sage grouse for at least 10 years, during which time states would gain primary management authority for the species and on approximately 165 million acres of its habitat.
A ThinkProgress review reveals that the scope of the Lee-Inhofe amendment extends far beyond the three species it targets, however, and would instead give state governors sweeping and unprecedented power over national forests and other U.S. public lands.
Under the proposal, governors of Western states would be able to use the greater sage grouse as a pretense to block any recent or future changes to the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plans in their states. These could include plans for conventional and renewable energy development, access for hunting and fishing, and wildfire prevention and suppression. The amendment exempts governors’ decisions from judicial review and grants them the sole power to determine which federal plans and actions are appropriate to veto.
“Unfortunately, how states manage their own real estate doesn’t give me much comfort that either the bird or our nation’s hunting and fishing traditions will thrive under state supervision,” Kate Zimmerman, Public Lands Policy Director at the National Wildlife Federation, told ThinkProgress. “The National Wildlife Federation has reviewed how state trust lands, for example, are treated in eight Western states. National public lands and the habitat and recreation values they provide to all Americans could wind up closed off, drilled, logged, mined or sold if managed to state specifications.”
Critics have blasted the Lee-Inhofe proposal, as well as a nearly identical proposal from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) that passed the House of Representatives on May 15, and a similar effort from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) for undermining on-the-ground conservation efforts in Western communities.
“Representative Bishop’s rider would undo years of collaborative efforts among the federal government, Western states, landowners, ranchers, sportsmen and a range of other stakeholders to sustain populations of the grouse and the sagebrush ecosystems so important to fish and game, sportsmen and our economy,” said Land Tawney, the head of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, when the defense bill passed the House in May with Bishop’s rider attached.
The Lee-Inhofe and Bishop riders are the latest chapter in a long-running and recently-escalating effort by right-wing politicians to cede America’s national forests and public lands to state control.
In March, a proposal from Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to facilitate the transfer and sale of U.S. public lands passed the Senate by a vote of 51 to 49, with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) switching her position at the last minute to cast the decisive vote.
Although efforts to seize and sell public lands appear to be gaining some traction in the Republican-controlled Congress, they continue to be viewed as unconstitutional by legal scholars and are highly unpopular with Western voters who worry that states would be forced to raise taxes or sell off lands to the highest bidder to cover additional costs of land management.
In state legislatures, similar land grab proposals have fared poorly in recent months. In Montana, for example, large rallies by hunters and anglers at the state capital helped defeat a series of land transfer bills and, according to the Associated Press, land grab proponents in the state appear to be abandoning their efforts. The leader of the so-called land transfer movement, Utah state Representative Ken Ivory (R-UT), is also the subject of fraud allegations for collecting taxpayer money under false pretenses for personal gain.
The Lee-Inhofe proposal could get a vote by the full Senate in the next week. Obama administration officials have expressed strong opposition to it and threatened to veto a similar measure in the House.
Matt Lee-Ashley is a senior fellow and director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow him on Twitter at @MLeeAshley