SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — A Republican congressman from Utah who introduced a bill to sell 3.3 million acres of “excess” federal lands in 10 Western states – an area the size of Connecticut – has backed off the legislation after backlash and protests by environmentalists and citizens alike.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz last week reintroduced House Bill 621, the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, calling for the “responsible disposal” of federally owned public land in 10 states including his own.
On Wednesday, amid widespread backlash and public protests across the West, Chaffetz withdrew the legislation, writing in a letter to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, “I am sensitive to the perceptions this bill creates in the current environment.”
Chaffetz continued: “As a proud gun owner, hunter and public lands enthusiast, I want to be responsive to my constituents who enjoy these lands. I look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders in the broader public lands discussion in a collaborative manner.”
In a Twitter post on Wednesday, Chaffetz separately said, “I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”
Environmentalists slammed Chaffetz’s proposal as an egregious assault on the public for the oil and gas industry.
The lands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, included 132,931 acres in Utah and were once identified by the Clinton Administration as “suitable for sale to non-federal entities.”
Chaffetz said the lands, popular among outdoor enthusiasts, are merely 1 percent of BLM land and less than 0.5 percent of all federal lands, and “serve no purpose for taxpayers.”
According to BLM records, the lands at issue may contain oil and gas reserves and provide habitat to threatened and endangered species.
Chaffetz on Jan. 24 also reintroduced House Bill 622, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, which would prohibit BLM and U.S. Forest Service officers from performing law-enforcement functions. The bill calls for deputizing local law enforcement, plus block grant funding to “empower” elected law enforcement offices.
Jointly sponsored by Utah Reps. Mia Love and Chris Stewart, HB 622 calls for a formula to reimburse local law enforcement based on the percentage of public land per state.
“It’s time to get rid of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service police,” Chaffetz said in a statement. “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.
“The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities,” Chaffetz added.
The reintroduced bills addressed 67 percent of Utah lands under federal ownership.
Wilderness Society called Chaffetz’s moves “step two” in a congressional push to steal America’s public lands, and an “egregious assault” and “sell-off scheme.”
“Trump’s allies in Washington laid the tracks for this land takeover scheme the moment they started their legislative session, and now they’re driving a locomotive over the American people and our wild natural heritage,” the group’s senior government relations director Alan Rowsome said in a statement.
Rowsome called the lands irreplaceable, and central to the strength of the nation.
“What’s worthless to allies of the fossil fuel industry for all except oil and gas extraction has irreplaceable value to the American people for hiking, hunting, camping, fishing and countless other pastimes that Teddy Roosevelt first acknowledged were central to the strength and well-being of this nation,” Rowsome said. “Today, those outdoor pastimes have a $646 billion value and contribute millions of American jobs to rural communities without harming the lands and waters themselves.”
According to a 2016 poll by Hart Research Associates, 78 percent of Americans oppose efforts to privatize or sell public lands — including 64 percent of Trump voters.
In 2013, a Hart poll conducted months after the first time Chaffetz introduced the legislation showed 72 percent of Western states’ voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supported selling public lands to reduce the budget deficit.