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Republicans Take Aim at Public Lands

At the top of a Congressional to-do list: selling off public lands.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump demonstrated little interest in the Republican agenda of transferring control of federal public lands to the states and opening them up for private development. But over the last four weeks, enemies of public lands in Congress have forged ahead, perhaps trusting that the new administration’s coziness with the oil, gas, and mining industries will outweigh any commitment to protecting public access and control.

The first blow was tucked into an otherwise mundane procedural bill establishing rules for the 115th Congress, which passed as one of the first orders of business back in early January. A new rule in the bill allows the 115th Congress to sell off a piece of federal public land without accounting for its value to U.S. taxpayers. Yosemite? Yellowstone? Zion? For this Congress, selling off any piece of our iconic public lands will no longer be considered to “decrease revenues”—in other words, they can act like there’s no cost to the American people.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, apparently eager to take advantage of these obliterated standards, lost no time before introducing H.R. 621, directing the Secretary of the Interior to sell off 3.3 million acres of public lands in western states. He followed up with H.R. 622, an effort to strip agencies such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife, and the Park Service of law enforcement authority on the public lands they’re responsible for managing.


One reason for the sudden onslaught is that Republicans in Congress are rushing to take advantage of an obscure law, the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to expedite the repeal of any federal regulations by eliminating the possibility of a filibuster. Any agencies whose regulations are repealed using this act are then prohibited from putting forth any “substantially similar” rules in the future. That means no revisions, no going back to the drawing table. Congressional Republicans are in a hurry to wield this power to maximum effect against environmental regulations and other measures passed in the final six months of the Obama Administration.

One of the first targets was the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, which seeks to curb the nearly 3.3 million metric tons of methane released by oil and gas production each year — nearly half emitted from operations on federally managed lands. Methane is an exceptionally potent greenhouse gas, and when released through venting and flaring at drilling sites it’s often accompanied by an assortment of even more toxic chemicals. (In addition, the amount of natural gas “vented” into the atmosphere by operations on federally managed land has been estimated to be worth roughly $330 million at current prices, were these facilities operated more efficiently.) The bill to repeal easily passed the House, with only three Democrats voting in favor, and now waits for the Senate.

Another target is the National Park Service’s update to its thirty-seven-year-old regulations on oil and gas drilling operations inside our National Parks. A major reason the Park Service issued the update was to close loopholes that have exempted nearly 60 percent of drilling operations in twelve national parks from complying with current standards for oil and gas drilling. If the update is repealed, the Park Service would effectively be blocked from ever closing these loopholes without future Congressional approval, letting extractive industries off the hook in delicate ecosystems like the Everglades and Grand Tetons. Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, introduced the bill—a red flag for people concerned about current inquiries into uranium mining in the greater Grand Canyon landscape.

Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, has recently gone after Bureau of Land Management’s updated “Planning 2.0” initiative, intended to increase public engagement in how public land is managed.


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Under the new rules, local stakeholders like hunters, anglers, and outdoor athletes would be involved in land use conversations from the start. The BLM planning updates have been underway for nearly three years, with multiple public comment periods. Cheney’s bill would prevent the updated rules from taking effect and simultaneously block the bureau from going back to the drawing board—in other words, from doing its job.

In Alaska, Congress is also taking aim at a rule issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service this past August to protect apex predators in national wildlife reserves—like wolves and bears—from being hunted by air or in their dens.

Meanwhile legislators in Utah passed H.C.R. 11, requesting that the President use the Antiquities Act to rescind Obama’s designation of the “Bears Ears,” named for twin buttes rising up over the Colorado Plateau, as a national monument. The Utah legislature also passed a resolution urging Utah’s congressional delegation to support legislation shrinking the area of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante sit on significant deposits of potash and coal, respectively.

But the news isn’t all dire.

Public outcry against H.R. 621 prompted Chaffetz to kill his bill, sparing 3.3 million acres of public land from potential sale. Hunter and angler groups played a vocal role, and are determined to see H.R. 622 meet the same fate. And in Utah, the push to rescind the Bears Ears national monument designation was the final straw for the nation’s largest outdoor recreation companies, which have been facing mounting public pressure from outdoors groups, to announce that Salt Lake City, which has hosted the industry’s twice-yearly trade shows for two decades, won’t be allowed to host the event for the foreseeable future—a move that will cost Salt Lake City roughly $45 million in revenue each year.

The proposed repeal of regulations on oil and gas drilling in our national parks still sits in the House Natural Resources committee. Cheney’s proposed repeal of the Bureau of Land Management’s new planning rules hasn’t yet been brought to the floor of the Senate. Meanwhile, the White House has given no indication that it intends to act on Utah’s resolutions attacking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

The new Congress has laid down the gauntlet, but public land advocates can still rise to the challenge.

Jenna Ruddock

Jenna Ruddock is a DC-based journalist, documentary filmmaker, and illustrator covering science, the environment, and civil liberties. Follow her on Twitter @natlsciservice

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