U.S. House changes its rules to ease federal land transfers

The Western movement to transfer federal lands scores an early victory in the new Congress.


On the first day of its new session, the U.S. House passed a new rule designed to make it easier to transfer federal lands to states, local communities or Indian tribes by assuming that these transfers would not cost the federal government anything.

The change was approved Tuesday 233 to 190 as part of a broader collection of rules which will govern how the House will operate during the 115th Congress ranging from budget guidelines to ethics standards. The lands transfer provision didn’t figure in the debate. Previously, when Congress wanted to transfer public lands managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other federal agency, the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ research arm, calculated the cost to the U.S. Treasury by computing what revenues the lands provide over 10 years, such as grazing fees or oil and gas royalties. Under House rules, before a bill approving a transfer could be adopted, budget cuts would have to be made in other federal programs equal to the value of that land. The rules change eliminates that budgetary barrier to land transfer bills.

A vista in Indian Creek, within Utah's 30-plus million acres of federal land, which some legislators seek to transfer to state hands.

But it’s not clear if this early victory for federal land transfer advocates prefaces bigger triumphs for the growing movement, which has yet to score major victories in Washington. President-elect Donald Trump’s views on federal lands transfers aren’t clear.

The GOP platform, which was adopted this summer, promotes transferring federal lands, but the incoming Trump administration does not seem to share Bishop’s enthusiasm. Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, opposes federal land transfers and quit his position on the committee writing the GOP platform over the issue. However, on Tuesday, he voted in favor of the rules changes that included the lands transfer provision. Trump gave mixed signals during the campaign. In January he told Field and Stream “I don’t like the idea” of transferring public lands to states. But in August, Trump met with Elko County, Nevada, Commissioner Demar Dahl, a major figure in the pro-land-transfer movement. Dahl told HCN that Trump told him, “I’m with you.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who sponsored the change, is one of Congress’ strongest voices for giving federal lands to states and localities. Bishop, who chairs the House Resources Committee, argued that the Congressional Budget Office’s traditional accounting missed key benefits of land transfers.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who pushed for the rules change, at an event in 2011.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

“Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues,” Parish Braden, the committee’s communications director, said in an email. It also will reduce the federal government’s need to subsidize communities adjacent to federal lands with programs such as Payments in Lieu of Taxes or Secure Rural Schools, he added: “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.”

Democrats and supporters of federal lands blasted Republicans for changing House rules to suggest that federal land has no value. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the move “outrageous and absurd” and said it is part of the GOP strategy to give away public lands owned and used by the American people by pretending “such giveaways have no cost.” Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Resources Committee, added in a statement: “Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.” In fact, Grijalva and other Democrats argue that the Congressional Budget Office actually undervalues federal land proposed for transfers because it only counts expected receipts and does not account for what a parcel of land is worth to the American people because it includes a sacred site, scenic views, critical habitat for wildlife or access for recreation or hunting and fishing.

Because this action changes a House rule, the Senate does not get a vote. But Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, predicts that Bishop’s victory will not lead to major transfers of federal land to states or localities. Even if the House approves transfers, the Senate likely would block them because any controversial provision needs 60 votes to override a filibuster and Republicans only outnumber Democrats 52 to 48 in the Senate.

Pam Bond
Pam Bond Subscriber
Jan 05, 2017 02:11 PM
Regardless of whether I agree with them or not, I would respect politicians more if they would just have a little conviction instead of a swaying opinion on the different issues and policies.
Mark Rozman
Mark Rozman
Jan 06, 2017 12:42 PM
I would consider supporting this only if the lands revert to federal ownership if the states attempt to sell or close access to the public. I am certain special interests, i.e. ranching, drilling, mining are the puppetmasters for the puppet politicians concerning land transfers from federal ownership to whomever. Let's follow the money on this one. Happy hunting.
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen
Jan 06, 2017 01:20 PM
why fix something that isn't broke. I think the Feds are doing a pretty good job considering the funding cuts that have occurred. I agree with you on puppet masters for puppet politicians.Republicans who are so concern about the deficit want to give away our lands and the feds are already doing sub market leases. In land exchanges our fed appraisers currently ignore development potential when they exchange inaccessible inholdings
for Fed lands adjacent to towns and resorts and the public gets the short end of the stick.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jan 06, 2017 01:46 PM
It's interesting, or "interesting," that the wingnuts among our Congresscritters are all for something like cost-benefit analysis ... until they're agin it.
Zach Chupa
Zach Chupa
Jan 07, 2017 09:13 PM
The notion that we ought to "wait and see" what happens once these land transfers start happening is a fairly foolish one. Reason being: we've been through this before. By that I mean, over one hundred years ago an aggressive and progressive Republican named Teddy took on opposing sides in order to bring the country together for common interest to retain and protect the lands we ALL now cherish. What forced him to find a way was a series of natural disasters which threatened the integrity of what land means to us now but had not been defined as such until that time when he took action. Mainly, the one side, corporate powers that were alive and well then, just as they are now, wanted to over-strip the land of its resources but also wanted profit, an understandable goal. On the other side was the public and it was venturing more and more westward, not only for living, but for work and leisure too. But the aforementioned natural disasters, mostly massive fires, made it necessary for the government to determine what to do for EVERYONE's sake so that these valuable(in every sense) lands were not lost. So, amongst other methods, Roosevelt put the land into a public trust....we call them parks, monuments, refuges, wilderness, and many other names. There is a good book that describes a lot of this well called The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America....by Timothy Egan. I think this story sold me on the idea that we've handed control of land to any number of people before who would not take care of it in ways that we all deserve, and so, for better or worse, we have made federal lands to ensure that future generations may enjoy the various riches that are left in tact. That's not in corporate interest, or environmentalist interest, or hunter/fisher interest, or farmer interest....but ALL of our interests. I fear this new power grab could be messing with a good thing, but it looks like I will have to wait and see.