Letters from the West

Chaffetz withdraws public land sale bill after outcry from hunters, anglers

Bighorn sheep depend on public land throughout the West for their survival. They are prized by hunters, who have become among the strongest defenders of keeping public lands under federal ownership.
Bighorn sheep depend on public land throughout the West for their survival. They are prized by hunters, who have become among the strongest defenders of keeping public lands under federal ownership. Idaho Fish and Game

Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz said he will withdraw a bill ordering the Interior Secretary to sell or dispose of more than 3.3 million acres of public land.

Chaffetz had just reintroduced the bill when his office and Instagram account were flooded with protests from angry hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

“I am withdrawing HR 621,” Chaffetz tweeted late Wednesday. “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands.”

H.R. 621 was based on a 20-year-old report that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ordered to see what among the possibly disposable Bureau of Land Management land was available for sale or trade to complete the Everglades Restoration effort.

The 1997 report clearly showed that many of the parcels spread out across Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming had impediments to sale, including high disposal costs, critical natural or cultural resources, wildlife habitat, mineral claims, leases and hazardous conditions.

When he rolled out the bill earlier this week, Chaffetz said the land serves “no purpose for taxpayers.” His bill also would open the door to sales of other lands.

But he changed his tune Wednesday.

“The bill would have disposed of small parcels Pres. Clinton identified as serving no public purpose but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message,” Chaffetz wrote. “I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow. #keepitpublic.”

The turnaround was remarkable. Chaffetz had introduced the bill twice previously and it got little attention.

Former President Barack Obama would certainly have vetoed the bill. And Chaffetz would have had a hard time showing — as the law required — that each parcel would make taxpayers more money than it would cost to sell, so the chances of its passing in 2016 were small. His bill was basically just part of the argument for Utah’s vision of disposing of federal lands within its borders.

But since his Utah colleague Rep. Rob Bishop spearheaded a rule change in January that ordered the Congressional Budget Office to “score” federal land transfers at no cost, no matter the price or loss of resources to the taxpayer, Chaffetz’s reintroduced bill looked more ominous.

In other words, Congress could pass a bill that gives away valuable taxpayer assets without having to offset the loss in the budget.

Hunters, anglers, outdoor recreation businesses and others had gone ballistic. They worried that buyers like the Texas billionaire Wilks brothers might be in the market for some new playgrounds, and traditional fishermen and sportsmen would be shut out.

The movement to transfer public lands to states has all but stalled, primarily because of the costs and the legal problems. But supporters like Chaffetz have looked at a more piecemeal strategy.

The 1997 list includes 110,000 acres of Idaho land from among the 11.9 million acres of public land managed in the state by the BLM. The parcels are listed by county and spread out across Southern Idaho.

Many likely were listed as possible candidates for disposal in past land management plans. Many of them list a lack of legal access as one of the impediments to sale. Other parcels were listed 20 years ago as wildlife habitat or with active mining claims.

It might make sense to put some of these lands on the market. Current land management plans do identify parcels that could be sold to the public’s benefit.

But you don’t just walk into a BLM office and put a wad of cash on the desk of the real estate staff. Officials first have to determine whether the land is eligible for sale, and then they have to determine market value.

Then comes an environmental review to figure out whether a sale would have a negative impact environmentally or economically. If it clears that hurdle, the agency would likely hold an auction if it decides the sale is in the public interest.

That’s the point. Chaffetz and Congress have to show that what they propose is in the public interest.

H.R. 621 certainly didn’t make that case.

Chaffetz now is sounding more like incoming Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He and his boss, President Donald Trump, have expressed opposition to transferring or selling federal lands on a grand scale.

As a Montanan, Zinke will know there are times when public land sales and especially land trades make sense. But not with the lack of forethought that went into the Chaffetz bill.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker