House Republicans including Montana U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke voted Tuesday night to overturn a rule requiring Congress to calculate the value of federal land before transferring it to states or other entities, removing a significant barrier to limit lawmakers from ceding federal control of public lands.
The provision, part of a larger rules package that passed by a vote of 233 to 190, dictates that transfers of federal land should be treated as having no cost to the federal government, therefore requiring no budgetary offset, even if the parcels generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury through logging or energy extraction.
Currently, the Congressional Budget Office provides “scorekeeping” estimates to measure the costs of proposed public land transfers by evaluating the economic impacts of existing uses.
The new rule, introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, overturns that requirement, stating that “authorizing a conveyance of Federal land to a State, local government, or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.”
While the idea of transferring federal public land to the states has figured prominently into the GOP platform because it returns management authority to surrounding communities, opponents caution that states without the resources to manage broad swaths of federal land would be forced to sell it off to developers.
“This proposal is outrageous and absurd,” according to an internal memo circulated to Democratic House members by the Natural Resources Committee and obtained by the Beacon. “This is fiscally irresponsible, not to mention a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people. This proposal would allow the federal government to give away every single piece of property it owns, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value.”
There are more than 27 million acres of federal land in Montana, encompassing about 29 percent of the state. The Forest Service oversees 17 million acres, mostly in Western Montana.
Zinke, Montana’s lone congressman, was recently tapped by President-elect Donald Trump as the nation’s next Interior Secretary and has opposed transferring management of federal lands to states’ control, even quitting his post as a member of the GOP platform-writing committee after the group included language that would have made transferring federal land ownership to the states a priority.
He characterizes himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt” Republican and made his commitment to preserving America’s public lands a centerpiece in his recent campaign for re-election.
“I was extremely surprised by Ryan Zinke’s vote in support of this rule change,” Brad Brooks of The Wilderness Society said. “This rule greases the skids by removing the biggest obstacle preventing the transfer of public lands. Talk is cheap and votes matter, and this vote really mattered.”
Trump has also stated he opposes the transfer of public lands, telling Field and Stream magazine last year, saying “I don’t like the idea.”
“You don’t know what the state is going to do,” Trump told Field and Stream. “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Zinke’s vote in favor of the new rule prompted immediate backlash from the local conservation and outdoor recreation communities, whose advocates called it an about-face.
“This is an absolute affront to Montana’s way of life and to the millions of Americans who hike, hunt, fish, and camp on public lands,” said Brian Sybert, executive director of Montana Wilderness Association. “It’s especially troubling that Rep. Zinke, a self-proclaimed Roosevelt conservationist and possibly our next Interior secretary, voted for this measure, because this is a major attack on Roosevelt’s legacy.”
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers decried the measure and strongly criticized House members who voted in support of it.
“As the 115th Congress enters its first week, some of our elected officials are wasting no time in paving the way to steal our outdoor heritage,” said BHA President and CEO Land Tawney. “Buried in a litany of other measures is language inserted by Congressman Bishop that would make it easier to give away America’s public lands. For sportsmen, this provision sticks out like a sore thumb. If it’s a fight they want, they’ve got one coming – and I’m betting on public lands hunters and anglers.”
When pressed for comment about his vote to ease the transfer of public lands, Zinke’s communications director Heather Swift stated in an email, “Ryan Zinke’s position has not changed.”
The primary impact of the rules change is that it inhibits lawmakers from raising a budgetary point of order if a land transfer bill lands on the floor. Under current House rules, any measure that costs the U.S. Treasury money must be offset by budget cuts or another provision to replace lost revenue.
Marne Hayes, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, joined in criticizing the House vote.
“The U.S. House just voted to make it easier to give away one of Montana’s prized business assets. We are sounding the alarm that this legislation will directly impact Montana businesses because it threatens our public lands,” Hayes said. “While Montana Representative Ryan Zinke voted for the package, we hope that in his new role as Interior Secretary, he will stand firm against future threats to Montana jobs and our outdoor way of life.”
Following the House vote, both U.S. senators from Montana stated their continued opposition to transferring federal lands to the states.
“I continue to strongly oppose the transfer of federal lands to the states while fighting to improve the management of those lands,” Republican Sen. Steve Daines stated.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester issued the following statement:
“This vote by the House is an underhanded assault on Montana’s outdoor economy, our hunting heritage, and our way of life. Public lands belong to all Americans and Congress should be safeguarding them, not clearing the way to auction them off to the highest bidder. I ask all those who care about our public lands to join me in demanding more public access, not more attacks on our public lands, from their representatives in the House.”
State Democrats likewise joined in the chorus chastising Zinke’s vote.
“Montana’s hunters and anglers won’t soon forget this vote and we will continue to hold Congressman Zinke accountable as he asks for the nation’s trust in serving as Secretary of the Interior,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party.