House Rules: Federal Lands are Worthless?
As their first order of business, even in the midst of self-made chaos, the House of Representative's GOP majority forged a trail to gut federal lands. Their goal is to place our country’s wild lands in state control and ultimately, private enterprise.
In this vein, the new House rules package passed on January 9th along almost straight party lines (220-213), with one Republican member voting "no." The rules dictate that congress shall no longer acknowledge budget implications of federal land giveaways to states. Although long considered standard practice, Congress will not account for revenue losses, spending increases, or changes in budgetary authority associated with federal land sales, donations or exchanges.1 The Republicans in Congress clearly think these budgetary considerations would cause serious pause when it comes to lands transfers to states; their solution is to quash the math. For the health of our public lands, this move is illogical and dangerous.
Ever since codifying into law public lands' intrinsic value, the Federal Government, by way of all American taxpayers, has invested extensively in the preservation, enjoyment, and development of National Parks, Forests, Wildlife Refuges, Monuments, and the like. The House’s budget blindness erases these monumental capital and labor investments. Taxpayers and outside states will not be adequately compensated for their historic investments when federal public lands are given away to individual states and localities.2
In addition to its expenditures, the US government generates staggering revenue from this property, derived from sources like energy production, natural resource extraction ($22B in FY2022 and $9.6B in FY2021, for the two sources combined)3, and recreation ($462.9M in FY2021)4. Managing these lands requires an abundance of capital and human resources that only the Federal Government has the endowment to oversee.5
Without considering the budget implications when these lands change from federal to state hands, how will we know how much money to recoup to make our country whole? How can we estimate the money we’re losing to state entities and potentially, private interests? How will we account for the management costs that will be the burden of one state’s taxpayer base, versus that of all Americans?
And none of this addresses the capital that federal workers on public lands inject into local economies. What happens when that entire workforce disappears?6
On top of the bookkeeping concerns, it’s important to understand why giving federal public lands to states causes such alarm and why considering all facets of public land transfers is crucial. Nature lovers inherently cherish our public lands for their wildness. It's where we come alive.
The numbers back us up: the National Forest System alone (which excludes National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Conservation Areas) is responsible for 80% of the elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goat habitat in the continental US and accounts for over 200,000 square miles of rivers and streams that know no state bounds. Congress dictated that the federal agencies tasked with overseeing and managing public lands, are responsible first and foremost for the preservation and public enjoyment of these places. Generating revenue shall never be their priority.7
The federal government's explicit obligation to protect these lands does not cross over to state jurisdiction. Instead, states have a responsibility to make money from their land holdings for the benefit of public institutions, most commonly schools.8 And they’ll need to find sources of revenue for the extraordinary management costs they are bound to incur. Given the opportunity, states will quickly make hay from destructive resource extraction and land sell-offs.
Most of this is hypothetical - public land transfers are rare and extremely contentious, especially with the public. But when former President Donald Trump, by swipe of the pen, vastly shrunk Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, the private mining and resource extraction interests quickly moved in to reap the bounty. While some of the damage from that term may be long-lasting, the current administration reversed the shrinkage and protections are being restored.
In 2017, the last time this House rule passed, our public lands had fewer safeguards; namely, the Senate and the White House were held by the GOP. And even then, when Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah tried to transfer 3 million acres of Utah’s public lands to the state - the only time Congress proposed a federal land transfer - the intense public backlash forced him to rescind his bill.9
Proponents of public lands transfers in Congress face enormous headwinds, House rule or not. Combine that with a pro public lands Senate and Executive Branch, and we can sleep relatively peacefully knowing that the new House rule is unlikely to lubricate public lands transfers. But as always, we must stay diligent.
1 Congress.gov. "H.Res.5 - 118th Congress (2023-2024): Adopting the Rules of the House of Representatives for the One Hundred Eighteenth Congress, and for other purposes." January 9, 2023. https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/house-resolution/5.
2 Nie, Martin. “Transferring Federal Lands to States: Unanswered Questions and Implications for Wildlife.” Plenary Talk. Helena, Montana, United States of America, n.d. https://www.umt.edu/bolle-center/perspectives/publiclandstalk-2017.php.
3 Natural Resources Revenue Data. “Home,” n.d. https://revenuedata.doi.gov/.
4 “Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act: Overview and Issues.” Congressional Research Service, August 1, 2022. Accessed January 23, 2023. https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/2022-08-01_IF10151_cf5a1bcbe5c0bc595e6c3a9d04215fb1e0da26cc.pdf.
5 By the editors. “At What Cost?” Outside Bozeman, August 3, 2021. https://outsidebozeman.com/culture/conservation/what-cost.
6 Stambro, Jan E. “Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah.” Utah Economic and Business Review 74, no. 3 (2014): 1–7. https://gardner.utah.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/uebr2014no3.pdf.
7 Nie, “Transferring Federal Lands to States: Unanswered Questions and Implications for Wildlife.”
9 Fischler, J. (2023b, January 16). U.S. House GOP would make it easier for feds to give public lands away to states. KTTN-FM 92.3 and KGOZ -FM 101.7. https://www.kttn.com/u-s-house-gop-would-make-it-easier-for-feds-to-give-public-lands-away-to-states/