House Republicans on Tuesday changed the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states and other entities, a move that will make it easier for members of the new Congress to cede federal control of public lands.
Many Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have been pushing to hand over large areas of federal land to state and local authorities, on the grounds that they will be more responsive to the concerns of local residents.
House Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman Molly Block said in a statement that “in many cases federal lands create a significant burden for the surrounding communities,” because they cannot be taxed and can be “in disrepair.”
“Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues” she added, as well as reduce the need for some federally-supported payments. “Unfortunately, current budget practices do not fully recognize these benefits, making it very difficult for non-controversial land transfers between governmental entities for public use and other reasons to happen.”
But many Democrats argue that these lands should be managed on behalf of all Americans, not just those living nearby, and warn that cash-strapped state and local officials might sell these parcels to developers.
Under current Congressional Budget Office accounting rules, any transfer of federal land that generates revenue for the U.S. Treasury — whether through energy extraction, logging, grazing or other activities — has a cost. If lawmakers wanted to give such land to a state, local government or tribe, they would have to account for that loss in expected cash flow.
Bishop authored language in the new rules package that would overturn that requirement, saying any such transfers “shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to fellow Democrats urging them to oppose the rules package on the basis of that proposal.
“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”
Environmental groups were quick to criticize the move.
Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society, said in a statement, “Right out of the gate, Congressional Republicans are declaring open season on federal lands… This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing, this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”
The immediate impact of the rules change is that lawmakers cannot raise a budgetary point of order if a land transfer bill comes to the floor. Under existing House rules, any measure that costs the U.S. Treasury money must be offset by either budget cuts or a revenue-raising provision.
While the official GOP platform endorses the idea of transferring federal land to the states, neither President-elect Donald Trump nor Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), his pick to head the Interior Department, embrace that approach. Zinke quit his post as a GOP convention delegate this past summer over the issue, and Trump expressed opposition to the concept a year ago in an interview with Field & Stream magazine.
“I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?” he said at the time. “And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”
The overall rules package became ensnared in a controversy over a different provision, which would have eliminated an independent congressional ethics office. But once that part of the package was removed, the measure passed on a largely party-line vote.
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