WASHINGTON — A little-noticed change in the rules of the House approved this week would make it easier to transfer federal land to local governments — a longtime goal of Republicans who believe the federal government controls too much property and a nightmare scenario for conservationists who fear local governments will open the land to greater development.
The change treats such transfers as cost free to the federal government even if they reduce federal revenue from mining, grazing rights and other sources. Without the change, members of Congress could have blocked a land transfer by requiring proponents to show how the lost revenue would be made up through budget cuts or increasing revenue from other sources. These “pay-as-you go” rules have been in effect since 2010.
All but three Republicans voted for the measure and all 193 Democrats voted against what some see as a major victory for long-standing GOP efforts to hand over federal land to local governments that could sell it for commercial development. It was part of a larger package of changes that set the rules the 115th Congress will operate under for the next two years. A proposed rule to scuttle the Office of Congressional Ethics was part of the same package, but it was withdrawn before the vote.
The land conveyance provision’s author, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, characterized it as a boon for local control of the lands.
“This rule democratizes our process by eliminating bureaucratic red tape,” Bishop said. “It facilitates the transfer of land from the federal government to the local government where people will have a larger voice in the management of their lands. Washington bureaucrats don’t listen to people. Local governments do.”
The Democratic staff of the Natural Resources Committee called the provision “outrageous and absurd,” noting that the broad definition of federal lands could see the transfer of the Grand Canyon National Park to the city of Flagstaff, Ariz., or even permit transfer of the ownership of the Pentagon and post offices to other entities “officially” at no cost to the American people.
It added that tribes and local governments are unlikely to have the budget or staff to manage large tracts of federal land and would likely sell them “to the highest bidder.”
“The proposal is one more instance of the Trump plan to use federal resources to enrich wealthy friends and donors by letting them get their hands on invaluable federal lands currently owned by, and open to, all Americans,” the staff memo said.
The practical effect of the change is that no member can raise a point of order on any land transfer’s impact on the budget. Since 2010, Congress has been constrained to by pay-as-you go rules to offset the costs of any measure by budget cuts or raising revenue. Supporters note that there are few offsets within the jurisdiction of federal lands subcommittees.
Advocates of the rules change say that federal lands can create a burden for local communities because they are tax-exempt and are often mismanaged. Allowing local entities to manage the lands will generate state and local taxes and allow limited federal resources to be focused on nationally significant federal lands.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., supported the measure and is a staunch opponent of expanding an existing national monument just over his district's northern border in Oregon.
“Over 40% of the land in California is owned by the federal government, and I don’t think it’s managed very well," LaMalfa said Friday. "This resolution will help our Republican Congress to pass legislation to reduce federal land ownership — a measure I support."
Environmental groups and outdoor recreation enthusiasts said the potential giveaway of the nation’s patrimony was an unacceptable overreach. The Wilderness Society called it "a wholesale giveaway" of lands that belong to all Americans.
Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental think tank, said the rules change is "an escalation in the Republican Platform to start looking at privatization of our federal assets," but just a first step.
"Eliminating the accounting of what these lands mean financially to the federal government is an alarming step," McEnaney said.
Missoula, Mont.-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers CEO Land Tawney said the rule “greases the skids for the sale and-or transfer of federal land. There couldn’t be any more important issue for hunters and anglers.”
But he said all Americans should care about the change because federal land “is where clean air and clean water comes from."
“It’s just a ludicrous idea. It’s been in the Republican Platform and they didn’t waste any time — the first day that they’re back this gets slipped in under the cloak of other things, and it’s super dangerous.”
Tawney said the outdoors community will fight it, and he is already mobilizing the opposition.
“Democracy is still ruled by the people who show up so we’re going to rally the masses: hunters, anglers, kayakers, bikers, mountain bikers, campers. And we’ll do that through state rallies at the legislative level all across the West.” And then, he said, they’ll come to Washington in protest.
“I have faith in the American people to stand up and fight this idea,” he said.
President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, a Republican congressman from Montana, opposes transfers of federal land and quit the Republican Party Platform Committee in Cleveland last summer when similar language was inserted in it. But when the issue came up this week, he voted for the rules change.