WASHINGTON — The first attack on public lands under the Trump administration came fast, and it died fast, too.
Responding to ferocious public pressure generated by two upstart public-lands advocacy groups, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has dropped his plan to force the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal land in the western United States to the highest bidder.
“Political activism is the only way to protect public lands from President Trump and his cheerleaders in Congress, and it works,” said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, ranking minority member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The Democrats on the committee haven’t gotten a lot of vocal support from the public for the past few years — with President Barack Obama in office, people thought their efforts weren’t needed — so he and his staffers watched the developments unfold, first with worry, and then with surprise and admiration.
What happened to the measure, H.R. 621, the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017, has important consequences for Hawaii as well. About 20 percent of the land in Hawaii is owned by the federal government, falling under three basic jurisdictions — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Defense Department. What happens to one set of federal lands can easily happen to another.
Hawaii U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will be playing a major role watching over federal lands. On Jan. 24 she was named ranking member of the federal lands subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, which will give her jurisdiction over the National Park System, national trails, historic and prehistoric sites on federal lands, Forest Service and wildlife resources.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Hanabusa said H.R. 621 was just the first of what will be one of many Republican efforts to transfer federal lands into other hands. In July, the Republicans announced that reducing the scope of public land ownership was a key plank in their national party platform.
Chaffetz had signaled his determination to move quickly on his legislation. He had introduced the bill twice before in earlier years but it failed because of the veto threat posed by President Barack Obama. Now, however, with a Republican as president, it seemed the measure would move forward on greased wheels.
On Jan. 24, Chaffetz introduced the bill again, declaring that the 3.3 million acres of land, which is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, “serve no purpose for taxpayers.”
“The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities,” he said in a statement.
But two relatively new groups — the D.C.-based Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers — had been quietly organizing around the issue for the past two years, building up their social networks, creating alliances with better-known environmental groups and advocates for clean air and water policies.
Neither one is a traditional left-leaning environmental group. They pride themselves on being bipartisan, which means their members are constituents of both political parties. Many of their members are hunters and fishermen. Some proudly eat red meat. But, as their rapid response showed, the members love the outdoors and nature, and they view public lands as a national patrimony worthy of care, protection and stewardship.
As soon as Chaffetz dropped his bill, they pounced — and set tweets twittering, Facebook flashing and phone lines ringing in Washington.
On Jan. 26, Land Tawney, president and chief executive officer of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a fifth-generation Montanan, made a presentation about the issue on Facebook Live, ultimately reaching more than 500,000 viewers.
“Folks, there’s been a lot of talk about selling our public land,” he told his members. “Well, that’s what they are doing, and this is a call to arms.”
Tawney identified two particular bills — H.R. 621 and another companion bill sponsored by Chaffetz, H.R. 622, which would terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, parcel the money out to the states and shift responsibility to local officials.
“Mr. Chaffetz, you’ve kicked a hornet’s nest and the army is amassing,” Tawney said, looking directly into the camera. “I will put my money on the people every time. The only single thing you can do is pull those bills back. …We’ll be watching every step of the way.”
Supporters were told to enlist the help of friends, neighbors, their dentists and their accountants. Entertainers revered in outdoorsmen circles helped spread the message, including comedian and mixed-martial arts expert Joe Rogan and hunting show TV stars Steven Rinella and Randy Newberg.
Black T-shirts bearing the slogan “Public Land Owner” began popping up for sale on the web.
At the state capitol in Helena, Montana, 1,000 outdoors enthusiasts rallied on Jan. 30, jamming the Rotunda with raucous public land advocates, including many who traveled there by bus.
Wilderness Watch sent out an urgent message to its members, asking them to contact their congressional delegations: “Calling all nature lovers! America’s public lands and wilderness areas are under assault.”
By Wednesday night, six days after Land Tawney rallied the troops, Chaffetz had had a change of heart. Posing on Instagram with a backdrop of a woodland scene, clutching his hunting dog, Chaffetz said he would pull the plug on the measure.
“I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow,” Chaffetz posted.
In a telephone interview, Chaffetz’s press office confirmed that he had killed the measure, and asked for further questions to be delivered in writing. They did not respond to the additional emailed questions.
Tawney, who previously worked at the National Wildlife Federation and has participated in many legislative fights, said he had never before seen a piece of legislation withdrawn so quickly without even holding a hearing.
“I’ve never seen anyone pull back a bill so fast,” he told Civil Beat in a telephone interview. “He realized he had made a major mistake. This was unprecedented.”
Next up will be the drive to kill H.R. 622, he said.
“Mr. Chaffetz, you’ve kicked a hornet’s nest and the army is amassing.” — Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
The battle over federal lands is only beginning, said Whit Fosburgh, president and chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“In many ways, this victory was two years in the making,” Fosburgh said in an email to Civil Beat. “It may seem like a swift and satisfying resolution for hunters and anglers who spoke out against H.R. 621 just this week, but grassroots opposition to this idea has been growing since 2015 … Our work isn’t done. There will be other proposals and bills seeking to undo our public lands legacy and sporting traditions, and we’ll continue to hold lawmakers accountable.”
Hanabusa said that outdoorsmen are valuable allies for environmentalists because they tend to know a lot about the local community and are often personally popular, which gives them an outsized influence on others.
“Hunters and fishermen — when they organize, they get things done,” the congresswoman said. “They are your neighbors. When they catch some fish, they share it with the others.”
But the battle that lies ahead will be a long hard slog, she said, because the Republicans will not give up easily and some will not give up at all.
H.R. 621 was turned back, she said, “after pressure from external resources,” but she noted that Republicans are likely to turn to other legislative procedures to try to accomplish their goals.
She said that Chaffetz’s views are mirrored by those of U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, and, like Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah. Utah Republicans have particularly adversarial feelings about federal land ownership because about two-thirds of the state’s entire land area is owned by the federal government. Hanabusa said she thinks Bishop will be more implacable than Chaffetz.
The legislators from Utah also have the institutional power of their party behind them. The Republican party platform makes that clear.
“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states,” the RNC stated in July. “We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands, identified in the review process, to all willing states for the benefit of the states and the nation as a whole. The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live.”
What happens next will also be influenced by how the country’s top federal land stewards decide to administer them. As with so many other things in the Trump administration, it appears to be evolving but it is hard to say in which direction.
During his campaign, President Donald Trump said he valued public lands and did not favor transferring them to the states. On the other hand, he has recently prioritized natural resource extraction over conservation because he wants to boost economic growth and increase the number of good-paying jobs. Jobs in forestry and mining pay better salaries than jobs in tourism providing food and lodging to vacationers.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Interior Department, presents a mixed picture as well. His primary job will be serving the president, but he has spoken decisively in defense of maintaining federal lands in public use. He is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, serving from Montana, and he has publicly clashed with Bishop over giving up federal lands.
He underscored his sentiments on the issue in his confirmation hearing on Jan. 17.
“I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands,” he said. “I can’t be more clear.”
Fosburgh’s group endorsed Zinke for that reason, noting that he had also resigned as a delegate from the Republican nominating convention because he opposed the plank calling for the transfer of public lands to the states.
“Zinke seems to be a person who will be more moderate,” Hanabusa said. “He won’t be lockstep with Bishop on the disposal of federal lands. We may have an interesting ally.”