A brazen scheme to plunder public lands has already surfaced in the new Congress. Utah’s Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill that relied on a 20-year-old report and an Everglades Water Deal to propose a 3.3 million-acre land grab across the West. This included more than 100,000 acres in Idaho. His proposal was met with immediate outrage from public lands enthusiasts across the nation. By midweek, the bill was dropped.
While the body of Western public land ducked a bullet from Congress this time, a sinister new rule change made in the House of Representatives remains standing. Nearly the first item of business in the new Congress was a rule change that allows public land to be sold at fire sale rates, or given away.
Financial losses do not even need to be estimated. Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson of Idaho and Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana (soon to be Interior secretary) voted for the egregious change. Idaho’s congressmen forgot their claims of fiscal conservatism in voting to change rules to facilitate crony deal making for disposal of public land.
The provision dictates that transfers of federal land should be treated as having no cost to the federal government. So there is no budgetary offset, even if the parcels generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury through logging or energy. Plus, just about every parcel of public land has seen some form of significant investment from taxpayers — from wildfire rehab to trail upkeep.
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The value of public lands to the public increases daily — as a haven for wildlife and biodiversity, or for hiking, camping and all forms of recreation and wildland adventures. Many city and town water supplies come from watersheds on public land. Intact public lands help buffer climate change effects. Do these politicians think that people live in Idaho for rock-bottom wages and winter inversions — and not for the natural beauty and enjoyment of public lands and open spaces?
Make no mistake, Idaho’s politicians will keep trying to shove a land heist through in bits and pieces, or sugar-coated as collaboration. They are beholden to corporate interests, or harbor a hidebound hatred of the federal government (at the same time their hands are out seeking heaps of federal subsidies). Vigilance.
Katie Fite, of Boise, is the Public Lands Director for WildLands Defense.