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.

High Country News Classifieds