Too much of a good thing

Legislation proposes to sell ‘excess’ federal lands

This map shows federal lands across the contiguous 48 states.

Environmental legislation often masquerades under other banners.

It was the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempted gas drilling and extraction — as in fracking — from the Clean Water Act. Addenda on fiscal bills have cut the feet from Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s efforts to establish stronger protections for roadless areas.

Few come at it as straightforwardly as H.R. 1126, the latest incarnation of legislation to require the secretary of the interior to auction off federal lands. The “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2011” calls for the sale of “identified Federal lands” in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, and the proceeds of those sales to be deposited into the U.S. Treasury to reduce the national debt.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a Tea Party favorite, has introduced a version of this bill in multiple sessions of Congress and, in March, added similar language requiring the sale of “unneeded federal assets” to the GOP budget, which was released by vice presidential candidate and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

According to Chaffetz, of the $112 billion in economic activity that BLM lands contributed to the national economy, $7.4 billion of it came from recreational visits, while $40 billion came from energy and mineral activity.

The lands proposed for sale total 3.3 million acres across the above-named western states — an amount equivalent to about half the 8.4 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado.

The lands offered for sale would be those selected during an investigation required by the 1996 Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act — mentioned in a clause in a section largely devoted to restoring the ecosystem of the Everglades and allot ting $200 million to that project. That $200 million for Everglades restoration was to be gathered in part by selling or trading federal lands or the mineral interests for those lands. Then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt was directed to look first for lands in Florida to trade or sell for property around Everglades National Park, established in 1947. The park itself wasn’t large enough to establish a healthy ecosystem and was instead troubled by water running off from nearby sugar cane farms and dams and levees, canals and pumps that choked the natural flow of water.

Babbitt was asked to select land that hadn’t already been reserved for conservation, and the sale or trade had to end with a result that allowed continued public access.

Fifteen years later, Chaffetz’s bill would require selling those lands, but does not guarantee public access to those lands after they’re sold.

The quantity of public land in the western United States dwarfs the amount in the eastern half of the country. The Public Land Survey System map of the United States shows that the majority of the western half of Colorado is public land. Much of Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and other western states show similarly large swaths of public land, many of which have been publicly owned and managed by the federal government since the 1800s. In Colorado, the Forest Service and the BLM have been managing those lands since 1876.

Compared to the small pockets of public land left east of the Mississippi, it seems like there is plenty available for trade in the West.

But take a lesson from what the secretary of the interior was struggling with in 1997 when it came to the Everglades: Small pockets aren’t enough to protect the ecosystem when the rest of the state has been dammed, drilled, farmed and logged. Selling land that’s been protected for more than a century to the highest bidder, even if the highest bidder is Halliburton, in the name of reclaiming land elsewhere shows all the wisdom of purchasing the wrong color roses and reaching for a paintbrush.

H.R. 1126, which has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, is accompanied by bills with a similar motif. The American Land Sales Act (H.R. 2588), sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) authorizes the secretary of agriculture to auction 8 percent of federal lands managed by the BLM to the highest bidder annually until 2016. That’s 36 million acres of public land — almost four times what the BLM oversees in Colorado and just short of the total amount of land the federal government oversees in Utah, which covers 69 percent of the state. The Land Division Act (H.R. 2852), sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), would force the BLM to give away 5 percent of federal lands to each western state, about 30 million acres, for the states to manage.

While these bills have died or are set to die in committee, legislation of this nature could see increased support in Congress, depending on how the elections go on Nov. 6. An executive office more willing to sign off on a GOP-drafted budget could slip these deals into the budget, and a bad trade, once made, is tough to undo.

This story is part of our Wilderness on the Ballot series.

Part 1: A road too far: Colorado’s wilderness is at stake in November’s election, by Elizabeth Miller

Part 2: Hunting for conservation: Legislation aims for hunting access, but would destroy wildlife populations, by Elizabeth Miller

Part 3: Too much of a good thing: Legislation proposes to sell ‘excess’ federal lands, by Elizabeth Miller