On the first day of Congress, the House of Representatives made it easier to give away public lands. In passing a “rules package”—the rules that are supposed to govern the rules for the 115th Congress—House Republicans included a provision that allows for the transferring of public lands without an accounting of the value that these lands provide.
Previously, rules required the Congressional Budget Office, a research arm of Congress, to determine how much a transfer would cost the U.S. Treasury by calculating the potential lost revenue from grazing fees or timber sales. Before a transfer could be approved, Congress would need to make budget cuts in other federal programs equivalent to the value of the land. The new rule change assumes that public lands are literally worthless, thereby eliminating the budgetary barrier to transfer land.
“It is alarming that giving away our public lands is apparently among the top priorities for this new Congress,” said Tom Wheeler, Program Director at EPIC. “Attempting to slip sneaky language into little-read legislation is not going to fly. We are watching.”
Our public lands are our nation’s key jewel, what filmmaker Ken Burns called, “America’s best idea.” Not only are our public lands a source of beauty and a backyard for recreation, they are key wildlife habitat and the source of clean drinking water. Public polling has shown that the vast majority of Americans are opposed to giving away our public lands, which helps to explain why Congress is trying to hide their actions in seemingly innocuous and mundane legislation.
Also worrisome, Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Ryan Zink (R-MT) voted for the rule change. Zink has previously stated that he is opposed to transferring ownership of federal lands to states, tribes, or private entities and his office said that, despite the vote, his position has not changed. To be fair, the land transfer provision was part of a larger rules package which included many other measures.