More than 20 years ago, President Ronald Reagan and his advisors looked across the West’s public lands and saw dollar signs. Money was something they desperately needed in 1982, as the national deficit hit $128 billion. So James Watt, then U.S. secretary of the Interior, and John R. Block, the secretary of Agriculture, earmarked 35 million acres, or 5 percent of the nation’s public lands (excluding Alaska), for the auction block.
The plan to privatize public lands was met with outrage and skepticism, not only from Western liberals such as Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, but also from conservatives like Sen. James McClure, R-Idaho, who objected because the states were cut out of the deal. Watt eventually withdrew Interior lands from the sale; shortly thereafter, the Forest Service’s sale lost steam, too.
However unpopular the proposed sales were, they weren’t illegal. And the idea didn’t go away. The framework for selling public lands has inched forward since the Clinton administration, and now the Interior Department wants to give it a higher priority.
The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) required the Bureau of Land Management to identify lands that were "uneconomical to manage," or that stood in the way of a community’s development. But the BLM lacked a strong incentive to identify such sellable lands: Under FLPMA, any money received from their sale would go directly into the U.S. Treasury, rather than into the agency’s own coffers.
Then, in 2000, Congress and the Clinton administration passed the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA), which changed how profits from BLM land sales were distributed. Twenty percent of any land-sale revenue would go toward the BLM’s administration costs, while the other 80 percent had to be used to buy private inholdings within BLM lands that contained "exceptional resources." The act was based on a land disposal and acquisition mechanism in the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998, which was crafted to accommodate Las Vegas’ rapid expansion onto neighboring public lands. But FLTFA’s profit scheme applied only to sellable lands identified before July 25, 2000. At that time, the BLM estimated it had 3.3 million acres of sellable land, but thanks to better inventories, its estimate has since shrunk to as low as 330,000 acres. From 2001 to 2003, the BLM sold almost 11,000 acres under FLTFA.
Today, cities like Phoenix, Ariz., and St. George, Utah, are butting up against public lands, and the BLM is facing a $320 million budget reduction from last year. At the same time, the agency is chipping away at a backlog of dated land-use plans, which gives it the opportunity to identify more disposable lands. Now, politically appointed staffers at the Interior Department want to give the BLM even greater incentive to do so.
In August, Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett, who oversees the BLM, wrote to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., asking for legislative amendments to FLTFA that would encourage the BLM to sell off more land. She has asked Congress to make the identification and selling of disposable land an ongoing process, rather than one limited to land identified before the July 2000 cutoff date. Twenty percent of any revenue would still go to the BLM’s administrative costs, but under Scarlett’s proposal, only 60 percent of the money would go toward land acquisition. The other 20 percent would go toward "conservation enhancement projects," to fund local projects such as riparian improvement or removing invasive weeds. Abolishing the July 2000 deadline gives the BLM "the incentive to decide to designate (new) lands as disposable," says Johanna Wald, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Wald thinks this change could open the door for much more land to be added to the "for sale" list.
Environmentalists are also skeptical of Scarlett’s "conservation enhancement projects." "Who knows what that will mean?" says Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Land Exchange Project, a watchdog group that follows public-land sales and exchanges. " ‘Enhancement’ can mean pavement."
Scarlett’s proposal would certainly affect the fastest-growing areas in the West by encouraging even more growth. In 2002, just north of Phoenix, Peggy Titus discovered that the BLM and a developer had been in negotiations over a disposable 17,000-acre tract that bordered her ranch property. Thanks to her mobilization of locals and the county government, the developer was scared off. But because the BLM is allowed to deal directly with developers, citizens and local governments are often left out of the loop.
Congress will look at Scarlett’s proposal when it returns from recess in September.