Is Utah coming around on public lands?
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Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz posted on Instagram late Wednesday night that he has heard the message loud and clear: America doesn’t want its public lands to be sold. He plans to drop H.R. 621, which would have put up 3.3 million acres of land for sale.
“I’m a proud gun owner, hunter, and love our public lands,” Chaffetz wrote on Instagram alongside a photo of him wearing camouflage and holding a dog. “The bill would have disposed of small parcels of land Pres. Clinton identified as serving no public purpose, but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message. … I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”
In early January, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, and Peter Metcalf, founder of Black Diamond, wrote a letter and an op-ed, respectively, encouraging the outdoor industry to move Outdoor Retailer away from Utah if its governor and legislators do not stop fighting against keeping public lands public.
The millions of acres of land covered under the “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act” were indeed identified by the Clinton administration in 1997, as Chaffetz wrote in his Instagram post. An official named those parcels of land in a memo after Congress had sought a report on unneeded land that could be sold because it had not been appropriated for any specific purpose, according to The Hill.
Incoming Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, of Montana, as well as President Donald Trump, have voiced opposition to selling off wide swaths of public land, breaking with many other Republicans on the matter.
“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 said in an interview with Field & Stream magazine last January. “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. And we have to be great stewards of this land.”
In comments on Chaffetz’s social media posts promising to pull the bill, an overwhelming number of “thank yous” were mixed with skepticism that Chaffetz would drop the issue for good. He has sponsored five bills of the same name: in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, and this year, according to Congressional records.
Chaffetz should be applauded for listening to constituents and hunters, anglers, and members of the broader outdoor community who flooded his offices with calls and emails asking him to drop the bill, says Alex Boian, VP of Government Affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association. But OIA is taking a “wait and see” approach to see if the death of H.R. 621 signals a broader change in Utah’s attitude toward public lands.
“There are still going to be efforts to undermine America’s public lands, including those in Utah,” Boian says. “OIA’s position on that is that we’re ready to defend America’s public lands, including those in Utah, because they are the backbone of industry. Any threat to public lands is a threat to the outdoor recreation economy.”
Boian likened the importance of public lands to outdoor recreation to the way telecommunications rely on fiber optic networks; federally-owned land and water are the infrastructure upon which the outdoor industry and recreation economy are built and sustained. People are more aware now than ever before that outdoor recreation brings significant economic benefits to the U.S., Boian says. OIA hopes Chaffetz’s move will set a positive example for other Utah legislators who have asked Trump to roll back the newly-created Bears Ears National Monument and to reduce the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Chaffetz’s office did not return phone calls to its Provo, Utah, and Washington, D.C. offices.
Alongside the bill to dispose of federal lands, Chaffetz also proposed H.R. 622, to strip law enforcement capabilities from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The “Law Enforcement for Local Lands Act” would use local law enforcement on public lands, and reimburse states for the expense based on the percentage of public land in the state.
“It’s time to get rid of the BLM and US Forest Service police,” Chaffetz said in a press release last week about the two public lands bills. “If there is a problem your local sheriff is the first and best line of defense. By restoring local control in law enforcement, we enable federal agencies and county sheriffs to each focus on their respective core missions.”
Chaffetz did not mention the law enforcement bill in his Instagram vowing to withdraw H.R. 621.
If one thing is certain, it’s that Americans are more enthused and proactive about politics than they have been in recent memory. This is the fifth time Chaffetz proposed to sell off “excess” federal lands, and the outcry was swift and strong.
“I think people feel empowered in this time where a lot of people are feeling powerless,” Boian says, adding that support for public lands has grown beyond the core group of people who work in the outdoor recreation industry. “A lot of people are kind of reeling back from this chaos and trauma, and they’re trying to find areas where they can feel empowered. On outdoor issues, it’s one area where Congress really listens.”