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Facing backlash, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz withdraws bill to transfer federal land to the states

A pronghorn, tagged for future study, runs across a meadow after being released on Forest Service land outside Fort Stanton, near Capitan, N.M., in 2014. (Jeremy Wade Shockley)
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Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) withdrew legislation Thursday that would have transferred 3 million acres of land from federal to state ownership, citing objections from constituents who complained that the move would limit access to public hunting and fishing grounds.

The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, which would have shifted federal holdings to state governments in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming, prompted an outcry among hunters and anglers’ groups. Introduced three weeks after House Republicans enacted a rule change to make it easier to sell off federal land, the measure prompted two separate rallies in Santa Fe, N.M., and Helena, Mont., this week that drew hundreds of people opposed to the measure.

“I am sensitive to the perceptions this bill creates in the current environment,” Chaffetz wrote in his letter to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah). “As a proud gun owner, hunter and public lands enthusiast, I want to be responsive to my constituents who enjoy these lands. I look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders in the broader public lands discussion in a collaborative manner.”

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On Wednesday evening, Chaffetz posted a photo of himself hunting with his dog, signaling his intent to withdraw H.R. 621, writing that it “would have disposed of small parcels of lands [President] Clinton identified as serving no public purpose,” but added that he recognizes the concerns it had sparked. The congressman, who introduced the bill  Jan. 24, had offered similar legislation in several previous Congresses.

A wide array of outdoors groups praised the move.

Aaron Kindle, Western sportsmen’s campaign manager for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement that his group appreciates “that Mr. Chaffetz listened” to those opposed to the bill.

“This loss would have forever robbed the American people of the amazing bounty these and all public lands provide,” Kindle said. “Another good move would be to withdraw the recently approved House rule that devalues public lands and makes them easier to dispose of.”

Katie McKalip, communications director for the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said in an email that its members and others “have sent a clear message, in no uncertain terms, that Americans greatly value our nation’s public lands and waters and that we will not tolerate actions by our elected officials that diminish them.”