Interior encourages BLM land sales

Selling public lands will let Western cities sprawl into new territory

  • In a couple of years, BLM lands around fast-growing cities like St. George, Utah, could hamper growth

    Al Hartmann photo, The Salt Lake Tribune
 

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.

The writer is an HCN intern.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers