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Sheep Lakes, Rocky Mountain National Park. Courtesy of Steve Voght / Flickr via Creative Commons

Is Congress Gearing Up to Give Away Public Lands?

The House's new rules on the valuation of public lands could lead to a shuffle of land ownership in Southwestern states.

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In early January, the United States House of Representatives passed a large rules package to govern in-house procedures for the 115th Congress. That might not seem like juicy news, but one particular item in the package could set up for big changes in the American West, including Colorado.

In passing the rules package, the House changed how they value federally owned public lands. Under the new rules, the House will not consider sales of these lands—from National parks and forests to swaths of Bureau of Land Management holdings—to be an economically significant transaction, if the land is being transferred to a state, local government, or tribal entity. Previously, the loss of a federal land’s value would have to be offset in the budget before it could be transferred to another entity. By removing that check, this small change could pave the way for easier transfers of federal land to tribes or state and local governments.

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Federico Cheever, professor of environmental and natural resources law and property law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, says the move indicates the Republicans’ intention to make good on an item in their 2016 platform that has been divisive within the party: the privatization of public lands. “It’s a harbinger,” Cheever says.

The House’s rule change alone doesn’t make the transfer of federal lands possible. It’s still not allowed under the Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), which governs the way that public lands are managed, including how they can be transferred. Rather, the new rule would make transference easier if FLPMA were to be amended by the Republican-controlled Congress and inked into law by incoming President Donald Trump. That may be a tough sell, as Trump has stated that he opposes the sale of federal lands, and his pick for Interior Secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, said in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he was “absolutely” against the sale or transfer of public land (although he did vote yes on the House rules package).

Much like the rest of the country, Colorado Representatives voted along party lines on the rules package—Colorado Democrats Jared Polis, Diana DeGette, and Ed Perlmutter voted against it, while Republicans Mike Coffman, Scott Tipton, Ken Buck, and Doug Lamborn all voted for it. The Wilderness Society has also voiced its opposition to the change.

Privatization efforts in Congress have recently been spearheaded by Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources and is a determined advocate for shifting control of federal lands to local entities in his home state. Bishop introduced the Public Lands Initiative in July, which would have changed management of 18 million acres of federally owned land in Utah and allowed for economic development within said land, including a region recently protected as a national monument by President Obama: The hotly contested Bears Ears region.

Bishop and other supporters of privatization—especially western Republicans whose states stand to benefit from a shift in land ownership—claim that local governments will be able to more effectively manage the land than the federal government can. If states own the land, they’re also able to reap the financial benefits through taxation, development (which is currently stymied by federal regulations), recreation, and other economic opportunities.

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Opponents of privatization, however, argue that public lands belong to all Americans—not just those who live nearby, and that they should be protected and conserved. There is also concern that states might not have financial resources for managing the land, which could lead local legislators to sell areas to developers.

Historically, Cheever says moves to privatize public lands, in whole or in part, have been unpopular with eastern Republicans but favored by western conservatives. In western states like Utah and Nevada, where 65 and 85 percent of the land, respectively, is federally owned, there’s always been strong support for returning these lands to state and local governments. “It’s really in states in the West,” Cheever says. ”That the ideal of wholesale transfers to the states has a lot of political currency.”

In Colorado, federally owned and privately owned lands seem to complement each other, so Cheever says he doesn’t see much controversy on this issue here.

“Those ghost towns like Telluride, Aspen, Vail, and Grand Junction [which are surrounded by federally owned national forests], they’re doing OK,” Cheever jokes. “The federal government has not strangled economic development out there. On the other hand, private ownership in Eastern Colorado has not been a huge boon for economic development.”

Cheever says that in Colorado, where almost 36 percent of land is federally owned, protected lands provide not only an economic benefit, but also positively impact citizens’ quality of life. So in the unforeseen event that lands—especially those along the Front Range—were unloaded from federal to local governments, there wouldn’t be much support for developing them, as is the case in more conservative western states like Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming.

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Though Colorado’s GOP Representatives all voted for the new rules package, they haven’t vocalized support for privatization. During the campaign, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-6th District) stressed the value Colorado’s national forests and the federal government’s responsibility to protect them. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-3rd District) openly states his commitment to keeping public lands accessible to locals and tourists on his website. Yet Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-5th District), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, has vocally opposed what he calls Bureau of Land Management’s inhibition of oil and gas leases on Colorado’s Western Slope.

“In Colorado, I don’t think we have much to be worried about,” Cheever says. “However, a lot of Coloradans spend a lot of time in Utah. We spend a lot of time in Wyoming, just two hours north of us, and we spend some time in the other western states. So while I think it’s very unlikely that federal government will transfer the Gunnison River Canyon to anyone, Coloradans could be seriously impacted by dramatic increases in development [including oil and gas development] of federal land transferred to the state in places like Wyoming and Utah.”

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