Republican bill to privatize public lands is yanked after outcry

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) responds to Western revolt, but public lands are still under attack by Congress.

A creek flows out of the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Oregon. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Selsky
A creek flows out of the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Oregon. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Selsky

Last weekend, more than 1,000 sportsmen, outdoor business owners, and public lands supporters joined Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) in Helena, Montana. Wednesday afternoon, a rally in New Mexico drew hundreds more people, all protesting congressional attempts to sell off or privatize public lands.

The outcry was prompted in part by Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s (R-UT) introduction of a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of public lands — an area the size of Connecticut.

“Every one of us owns these public lands,” Bullock told the crowd. “And the beauty is, we don’t need permission to go on them, do we? These lands are our heritage. These lands are our birthright.”

Wednesday evening, Chaffetz announced that he was withdrawing the bill.

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Chaffetz had previously claimed that the millions of acres of public lands from 10 states that could be up for sale to private interests “serve no purpose for taxpayers,” an assertion that protesters, public lands advocates, and now Chaffetz dispute.

“What’s worthless to allies of the fossil fuel industry for all except oil and gas extraction has irreplaceable value to the American people for hiking, hunting, camping, fishing, and countless other pastimes that Teddy Roosevelt first acknowledged were central to the strength and well-being of this nation,” Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

But selling off public lands isn’t Chaffetz’ only plan to transition public lands into individuals’ hands.

In an apparent nod to the one-year anniversary of the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the occupiers’ demands to dispose of public lands and undermine public officials, Chaffetz introduced a second bill that would eliminate federal law enforcement on public lands.

This bill would abolish the law enforcement capacity of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officials and hand over all law enforcement powers on U.S. public lands to local sheriffs. The change was one of the demands of the Bundy family and their followers who led last year’s occupation and refuse to recognize that the federal government exists. Local governments do not have the resources to monitor or enforce on public lands.

Violent extremism on public lands has been on the rise in recent years, yet congressional leadership hasn’t held a single hearing on the topic.

This is not the first time that Chaffetz has attempted to undermine protections for public lands. He earned a spot in the congressional “Anti-Parks Caucus” for introducing both of these bills in the last Congress, and has cosponsored legislation to undermine the Antiquities Act and to seize public lands.

Already this year the House of Representatives’ changed House rules, allowing the body to effectively value all national parks, national forests, and other public lands at zero. The move will make it easier to dispose of public land, since transactions will no longer have to go through the Congressional Budget Office.

It is unclear whether the Trump Administration, particularly Secretary of Interior nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), will support Chaffetz’ remaining bill, or any new bills to get rid of public land. Zinke supported the House rules change that made it easier to sell off public lands, yet he resigned from the GOP platform-writing committee after it supported the disposal of public lands.

Zinke was voted out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, and his nomination now heads to the floor for consideration by the full Senate. A confirmation vote has not yet been scheduled, but could come as soon as this week.