GUEST OPINION: Conservatives cook up cockamamy lands amendment

By on April 14, 2015

Jackson, Wyoming – On March 26, Wyoming’s two senators voted to approve a resolution that advances the idea that Congress should transfer federal lands, except national parks, monuments and preserves, to state and local governments.

The vote on the non-binding Senate Amendment 838 to the Senate budget resolution, sponsored by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, was 51-49. The title is “Disposal of Certain Federal Land,” and the stated purpose is “to establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land.”

The wording is turgid, and people are still arguing about what it does. You can hear it as the anti-federal chest thumping and message-sending common in the halls of the Wyoming Capitol. (See HB209 Transfer of Federal Lands from the 2015 Legislature.) Or you can consider it the opening salvo of a Republican-dominated Congress to transfer federally-managed lands to states.

Either way, it’s a bad idea.

What it says: The chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, “may revise the allocations of a committee or committees, aggregates, and other appropriate levels in this resolution for one or more bills, joint resolutions, amendments, amendments between the Houses, motions, or conference reports relating to initiatives to sell or transfer to, or exchange with, a state or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument, by the amounts provided in such legislation for those purposes, provided that such legislation would not raise new revenue and would not increase the deficit ….”

The Backcountry Hunters and Anglers issued a statement saying the vote “sends an alarming message” to sportsmen who use national forests, refuges and wilderness areas and points to an organized, concerted movement, “to sell off and limit access to America’s public lands and waters.”

OK, OK. We get the message that some folks who use public lands disagree with the federal managers, and we rankle when we get only half the royalties on federal mineral production in our state. Half of Wyoming’s real estate is owned and managed by the federal government, so we live with their regulations every day. But we also love our access to the most beautiful and recreationally rich land in the nation.

Let’s consider what happens when/if Wyoming and other state and local governments take ownership of hundreds of millions of acres of national forests, rangelands, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and historic sites. I want to hear from all those prudent fiscal conservatives in Wyoming who don’t want to grow state government.

Because we in Wyoming love our public land and try to think actions through to consequences, and consider practical solutions, we have to ask how well our state agencies are set up to manage millions of acres of forests, wilderness areas and refuges. More than $3.9 billion was appropriated for federal wildfire management alone in fiscal 2014. The Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments already operates on a very lean budget with only a handful of staff out in the field to monitor use.

We could sell the land, which justifies fears from sportsmen, recreational users and grazing lessees that access and use will become a whole lot more restrictive and expensive. Locked gates and “no trespassing” signs will proliferate.

Of course, one does not want to misrepresent and overreact.

Sen. Murkowski sought to clarify her intent with a statement that her amendment doesn’t actually sell or transfer anything. “It provides a general budgetary mechanism that would apply to future legislation. Any actual transfers or exchanges of land would still need to go through the regular order legislative process and be signed into law. Also, this amendment specifies that lands within a national park, national preserve, or national monument do not qualify.”

States are able to do a better job of managing land in the most “efficient and productive manner possible, from both an environmental and economic standpoint,” she said, although she doesn’t say how her amendment does that.

Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi also explained his support for the amendment. A statement issued by his office in Washington, DC, said the measure simply assures that any sale, transfer or exchange of land from the feds to state or local governments will be cost-neutral: it won’t cost the federal government or raise revenues. It has no force of law but does set policy about issues Congress should address, he noted.

“Senator Enzi believes that legislation transferring or exchanging land facilitates opportunities for those closest to the land to manage their own territory, encouraging economic development and empowering local conservation. Such legislation can be a boon for a community,” the statement says.

The statement offers an example of local management. Enzi sponsored a bill to transfer a Bureau of Land Management parcel to the Powell Recreation District: “They had been running a gun range on the property for over thirty years and were better able to manage the land than anyone in Washington ever could.”

Apparently, sensible transfers of land from federal to state and local government management happen right now, to the benefit of all, and I appreciate Enzi’s efforts to make it happen. I wonder if we even need the budget resolution amendment?

So, let’s see what we have:

• It’s an important mechanism —- or just a statement about being budget-neutral.

• States and local governments are poised to better manage hundreds of millions of acres of federal land — or they just want to get limited parcels in transactions governed by small individual legislation.

• The amendment does nothing – or it anticipates a wholesale transfer of land from the federal to state and local government, with the resulting economic development and closure to the public.

• The amendment just indulges the anti-federal contingency back in Wyoming that actually thinks we can do it all by ourselves – or it is a serious statement of policy and intent to move forward with enabling legislation.

Or it could be just another example of political posturing in the safe setting of a non-binding resolution, where no one will have to grapple with the consequences. It’s still a bad idea, but maybe that’s all it is: an idea.

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