This year’s GOP platform pushes federal land transfers

“Returning” lands to states has long been a party plank and a shifting political landscape could open the door.

 

The Republican Party is drafting its 2016 platform, which represents a hard swerve to the right on social issues. But other parts of its stance have long been consistent – most notably, its push for transferring federal lands to state control.

Party platforms are not binding, but they do demonstrate party priorities – what the base thinks are the most important issues and beliefs. And they're important in steering politicians. Political scientist Gerald Pomper determined decades ago that lawmakers usually do cast votes that accord with platform positions, and that in presidential election years, about two-thirds of platform promises get fulfilled in some form during the following four years.

This year’s platform, which will be finalized at the upcoming GOP convention, includes a demand that the government “immediately pass universal legislation providing the timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. That’s consistent with the ideas presented in the 2012 version, which suggested privatizing some of those lands:

“Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership… The enduring truth is that people best protect what they own.”

Coconino National Forest
GOP lawmakers generally support transferring federal lands to state control. That could include lands like Doe Mountain in Arizona's Coconino National Forest.
National Forest Service

Many in the GOP have long been on the side of the Sagebrush Rebels; as far back as 1984, the party's platform called for decreasing federal holdings and increasing privatization: "With due recognition of the needs of the federal government and mindful of environmental, recreational, and national defense needs, we believe the sale of some surplus land will increase productivity and increase State and local tax bases. It will also unleash the creative talents of free enterprise in defense of resource and environmental protection."

By 1992, the wording in the platform more explicitly called for decreasing federal holdings and encouraging private development: “We also seek to reduce the amount of land owned or controlled by the government, especially in the western States. ... In order to provide an economic base for the people of the West, a public-private cooperative partnership on these lands for multiple use in an environmentally sound manner is imperative.

Transfer champions such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, are up for re-election this year, and if they win their races, as they likely will,  they’ll doubtless make such measures a central part of their legislative efforts. And the transfer drumbeat has been getting louder in many Western counties. Even as some explicitly reject the idea of putting states in charge of public lands, others are signing up with the American Lands Council, which works to further the goal of “returning” lands to states.

While the GOP’s public-lands platform isn’t anything new, it’s one more indication of a growing schism between two fundamentally different views of how federal lands should be handled. The Democrats’ 2016 platform contains this language:

“As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.”

While dozens of bills and other measures requiring federal land transfers have been introduced over the years, none have yet become law, and probably won’t as long as a Democrat sits in the White House. But conservative lawmakers will continue pushing for the disposal of federal lands – and may even succeed, should the national political landscape shift further right.

 Jodi Peterson is a senior editor with High Country News.