The Proper Way to Make Sausage

The reaction to his “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act” was swift and predictable

By Rob Breeding

In January, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, introduced legislation that would have made it easier for federal agencies such as the BLM to dispose of federal lands.

The reaction to his “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act” was swift and predictable. Hunting and angling groups lined up to take symbolic target practice on the legislation. It was a pretty good example of the old axiom about the legislative process being a bit like making sausage. You sometimes love the results, but the process can be revolting.

I watched one contentious discussion explode on my Facebook feed. The opposition to Chaffetz’s bill was fierce, but I noticed a lone dissenter swimming against that tidal wave. It was an old friend, an outdoor writer in California.

He wrote that near his home in San Bernardino were small, isolated sections of BLM land. The pieces were remnants of the vast coastal scrub habitat — magnificent California quail habitat — that once blanketed Southern California. Today, however, the sections were just islands of scrub surrounded by oceans of development — impossible to hunt and, sadly, of limited ecological value.

He was right. Land like that would make a pretty penny if sold to developers, money that could be used to buy critical habitat in places where there’s still habitat worth preserving.

My friend almost had a convert, until he wrote this: How can people complain when they haven’t yet seen the bill? Let’s wait to read the actual legislation before we condemn it.

Alas, my friend, a fine writer and mentor during my cub reporter days, apparently failed Political Advocacy 101. When a politician with a history of proposing legislation contrary to your interests proposes more legislation, you work to kill it as swiftly as possible, by whatever means necessary. That’s what hunting and angling groups did.

Chaffetz was soon in full retreat, announcing he’d withdrawn the bill via a selfie he posted on Instagram, in which he donned a costume of camouflage and even held a puppy up as a prop.

If Chaffetz’s legislation had been legit, if the congressman had really been solely interested in unburdening federal agencies of surplus land that no longer served any real public purpose, there was a proper way to proceed. The process should have begun with the congressman, or more likely his staffers, contacting the various hunting and angling groups whose opposition could have been easily anticipated. Once he got those groups involved in drafting a proper bill, Chaffetz might have found a cosponsor from the opposition party. Then, with bipartisan support, he could have taken the actual language of the “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act” to the people for further discussion and review.

Such an effort might have produced worthwhile legislation. Instead, it’s easy to imagine the bill was really a Trojan Horse the congressman could use, once inside the battlements, to do what he really wanted: turn public lands over to private hands.

He won’t say that’s what he wants to do, but Chaffetz knows how unpopular his ideology is. We’d be fools to trust him.

I was reminded of this as I watched a potential amendment creating a constitutional right to hunt, fish and trap in Montana crash and burn last week. The bill might have been a good idea, but the sponsor, Sen. Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls, is the leading opponent of public lands in Helena. She is no friend of hunters and anglers, and those groups were rightly suspicious.

Maybe a constitutional amendment will make sense, but if so, that will still be the case in the next legislative biennium. After Montanans have had a couple years to chew on it, the amendment can be brought back, next time with the support of hunting and angling groups already in tow.

That’s how you craft legislative sausage worth eating.

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