The Great Public Land Heist Has Begun

House bill to sell national forests passes committee

Jun 22, 2016
Outside Magazine

This land is your land. Literally. The federal government holds it in trust for your use, and funds derived from it are spent on public projects. You can (and do) visit it to hike, climb, paddle, hike, hunt, fish, and do pretty much anything else outdoors; it's a crucial part of both our national identity, and our daily lives.    Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr.


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Without demonstrable public will and with strong opposition from environmentalists, hunters, anglers, the Department of the Interior, and the outdoor recreation industry, among others, Republican lawmakers are attempting to transfer control of your public lands from federal to state governments in a thinly-veiled attempt to force their sale for purposes of resource exploitation. Now, the first blow has been struck. 

Last week, the House committee on Natural Resources voted to adopt HR 3650, the summary of which reads:

“This bill directs the Department of Agriculture, through the Forest Service, to convey to a state up to 2 million acres of eligible portions of the National Forest System (NFS) in it that it elects to acquire through enactment by the state legislature of a bill meeting certain criteria. Portions of the NFS conveyed to a state shall be administered and managed primarily for timber production.”

It’s hard to discuss this issue without appearing partisan. While opposition to the land heist is bipartisan, support for it comes exclusively from Republican lawmakers, and the corporations which fund them. HR 3650 passed committee with the support of all but one Republican congressman, every Democrat on the committee opposed it. Last year, SA 838, which called for the sale of national forests and other public lands, was also unanimously supported by Republicans, and unanimously opposed by everyone else. 

Timber production itself isn’t the issue here. In 2014, the federal government raised $202,721,030.86 by selling timber from national forests. Rather than the states rights issue supporting lawmakers are painting it as, this move to transfer ownership of your public lands to states is instead widely understood as an effort to force its sale. According to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, who has spoken out strongly against the heist, states couldn’t even afford the annual firefighting budget such large tracts of land require, positively guaranteeing their sale to private interests. 

Why is private ownership of vast tracts of land you currently own bad? Well, it’s historically been demonstrated to reduce public access, and moves the land out of any unified, managed or regulated conservation program. Yes, there is a significant financial gain to be had by selling these lands, but that’s a one-off instance of profit from lands that currently contribute massively to local, state, and the national economy. The outdoor recreation industry alone, which relies on land access to exist, employs 6.1 million Americans and contributes $650 billion to the economy annually. The land where you and I currently go to camp, climb, cycle, hike, hunt, fish, and paddle is under threat. 

The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership—an organization of hunters and fishermen—called the bill an “overt attempt to undermine public land ownership.” Its president and CEO, Whit Fosburgh, went on to state, “Make no mistake, these are the first votes on legislation that would legitimize the wholesale transfer or sale of America’s public lands.”

In fact, the heist is so blatantly anti-American that even Donald Trump opposes it. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do,” Trump told Field & 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. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”

Want to learn more, or work to keep these lands? Visit

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