Emboldened by the change of administration, GOP lawmakers are quietly making moves that would permit a potentially vast transfer of federal land to states and other entities.
On a party line vote last week, the House of Representatives approved rule changes that would expedite such transfers, alarming environmental and recreation groups that have long called for “public lands to stay in public hands.”
President-elect Donald Trump and his pick for Interior secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican, have both said they oppose turning federal lands over to states or localities. Even so, Zinke joined his party in approving the Jan. 3 rules package, raising questions about how Trump might act if lands transfer legislation were to reach his desk.
“I’m not very confident. I am very worried,” said Sharon Buccino, a lawyer who directs the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “Both Trump and Zinke say they oppose the transfer of federal land, but when it came to vote last week, Zinke voted to make it easier to do land transfers.”
Zinke, whose Senate confirmation hearing is Tuesday, could not be reached for comment. Neither his office nor the Trump transition team responded to inquiries about his vote. A former Navy SEAL commander who served in Iraq, Zinke is an avid hunter and fisherman. This summer, he resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention after the GOP drafted a platform supporting transfer of federal public lands to states who wanted them.
As the nation’s biggest landlord, the U.S. government controls more than two billion acres of property nationwide, including 47 percent of the American West.
But the management of vast tracts by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management has sparked conflict, including armed standoffs involving Cliven Bundy and his sons over cattle grazing in Nevada.
Last October, a federal jury acquitted one of those sons, Ammon Bundy, of firearms and conspiracy charges stemming from the takeover in January 2016 of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Conservatives and local elected officials also have rallied behind calls to turn federal land over to local or state managers. In Idaho, a state where more than 60 percent of the land is in federal hands, rural communities blame federal ownership for a decline in timber harvests, and many ranchers complain about their dealings with the Bureau of Land Management.
“They feel it is like negotiating with the Soviets,” said Fred Birnbaum, vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a group that supports transferring federal land to local ownership.
Despite the growth of the land-transfer movement, Birnbaum says he doubts the president-elect will embrace the issue, largely because of the influence of his two adult sons, both of whom are dedicated sportsmen.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump Jr. was particularly active in courting hunting and fishing groups, and his support of federally owned lands may have influenced their father’s stands on some issues.
In an interview with Field and Stream last January, Trump made clear he doesn’t support federal divestiture of public lands or transfer to the states.
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do,” Trump said. “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?”
Speaking to Montana Public Radio last year, Zinke said he was open to changes in federal land management, but not a turnover to the states. “I have always been a strong supporter of public lands, and have voted against the transfer or sale of public lands,” he said. “My position is known and well-established.”
Lynn Scarlett, a managing director at the Nature Conservancy, said that such statements have given conservationists hope that land divestiture will not be on the table. “Every poll we’ve done shows strong support for keeping public lands in public hands,” said Scarlett, who formerly worked as a deputy and acting Interior secretary during the administration of George W. Bush.
Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he was concerned by Zinke’s vote of Jan. 3 in support of the rules package. A provision in that package removed a major obstacle to land transfers – the requirement that Congress reduce spending elsewhere to offset the lost value incurred by giving up property.
Fosburgh said that Zinke may have felt compelled to vote for the rules package to avoid picking a fight with House leadership and Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who sponsored the rules change. Bishop, who chairs the House Resources Committee, has long headed efforts to transfer western federal lands to states and local governments.
Others see Zinke’s vote as indicative of how the Trump administration may bend to pressure from land transfer advocates amid the horse trading that will inevitably accompany his legislative agenda. Bishop, for instance, could be instrumental in passing legislation that will allow Trump to bypass environmental reviews and build his wall along the Mexican border. So Trump may have to cut a deal with him.
“This is a big danger for public lands,” said David Hayes, a former deputy interior secretary during the Clinton and Obama administrations, referring to the horse trading ahead. Congress typically takes up a lands bill every couple of years, he said, and the next one could be sprinkled with federal properties that a handful of western lawmakers want turned over to their states.
If the federal government were to turn over some land, states would theoretically be able to reap more income from energy leases, timber harvests and recreation. But they’d also have to pick up the costs of managing the lands, and they wouldn’t be freed from complying with federal environmental laws, which can limit revenues.
A 2016 study commissioned by the Wyoming legislature cast doubt on whether the benefits of taking over federal land would top the costs. “Management of federal public lands is an incredibly complex puzzle of interwoven and sometimes conflicting pieces,” the report said, prepared by W2 Consultants of Jackson, Wyoming.
Regardless of how they act on federal land ownership, Trump’s management of western public lands is expected to be more business friendly than the Obama administration’s.
This week, Obama’s Interior Department finalized rules governing coal mining on federal lands, angering the industry by increasing royalty pavements after previously placing a full moratorium on such mining. Trump opposed the 2016 moratorium and has said he will work to open up more lands for coal, oil and gas production.
Trump also has been far from consistent in his statements. Last year, attempting to appeal to Nevada voters, he wrote an oped in the Reno Gazette-Journal slamming the BLM and urging it to be more accommodating in transferring federal land near urban areas.
“Because the BLM is so reluctant to release land to local disposition in Nevada, the cost of land has skyrocketed and the cost of living has become an impediment to growth,” he wrote.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth