Congress Set to Dump Public Lands into the Extractive Industry Feeding Trough
Alan Rowsome of The Wilderness Society says a recent change in a budgetary rule could see federal land handed off for logging and drilling
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
The House of Representatives passed a provision on Tuesday that would alter the financial calculations of transferring federal land. Making it easier to transfer control of public land to state and local regulators. Now, environmental groups and some Democrats are criticizing the move, saying that it could put much of the 640 million acres of federal public lands at risk of sale, to developers with little benefit to the public.
With us to discuss this is Alan Rowsome, joining us today from Washington, D.C. He is the Senior Director of Government Relations for Lands, at The Wilderness Society, which is a non-profit land conservation organization that is dedicated to protecting natural areas and federal public lands in the U.S. Alan, thank you so much for being here.
ALAN ROWSOME: Thanks, Kim. Glad to be here.
KIM BROWN: Well, Alan, if you could first explain exactly what this new provision is, and how it will make it easier to transfer federal public lands and give states control of these lands.
ALAN ROWSOME: Yeah. In some ways this is an obscure budget, rule-making decision, that the House has made. But it’s really a sneaky underhanded one, in the sense that it was decided upon very late yesterday and voted on quickly. At the heart of it, is the reality that in previous congresses, the Congressional Budget Office — which is used to decide whether legislation is going to cost the federal government money — in previous congresses, the Congressional Budget Office was allowed, and made the case, that when you sell federal land, the American public and the federal Treasury are losing an asset.
And when they lose an asset that is a cost to the federal budget, and should be offset when a decision is made to sell those lands. What the House did yesterday through budgetary rule making is say, that that is no longer going to be the case. And when a member of Congress offers a piece of legislation to sell or transfer federal land, they will no longer have to face a budget point of order, when another member of Congress can say this bill would actually create a cost to the federal budget. So, you need an offset to pass this bill because it actually is creating a net loss to the American public.
So, now what this essentially does is open up a world where a member of Congress can pass a bill that sells federal land. And the new rules say that that piece of land had no value to the public, you don’t need an offset for it. And so procedurally, that paves the way for significant more legislation to be passed that would transfer or sell federal land that belongs to all of us.
KIM BROWN: Tell us why this is of concern to you and other conservationist groups. And also can you talk about what is at risk for the public, and elaborate on what you just said? For example, endangered species of plants and animals that are on public lands. What are the other possible side effects, as it were, to the passage of this provision?
ALAN ROWSOME: Yeah. I think Americans nationwide really value their parks, their forests, their national wildlife refuges and their public lands. But there is also a more sinister effort in play by some members of Congress who would like to sell or transfer those lands. So that industry, or other interest groups, can get hold of them for drilling, logging or other sorts of extractive uses.
That’s a problem that is a major issue, because Americans want more public land. They want more places to recreate in. They want more places to be outdoors in. And at the same time, certain members of Congress would prefer to have those lands locked up and taken away from the public, so that they can be put to use by industry, to extract those resources.
We think that’s the wrong choice for our public lands. The American public, for the most part agrees. And I think what this budget gimmick essentially allows them to do, is move with much more impunity to sell, or transfer public lands, they think are not in the interest of the American public to be able to recreate in or be outside in. And instead, make a different decision about how those lands should be used.
And to us, that is the wrong priority, and I think it could be utilized in any state around the country now. Whether you’re in the east or the west. When you have a piece of public land that a certain member of Congress thinks would be better run by the state. Or better managed by a special interest or a private entity. They can now attempt to move legislation without having to offset the cost of that to the American public.
KIM BROWN: The Washington Post and TheHill.com have reported that a large number of Republicans, including the Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, say that states can be more responsive to local community needs. And also, these lands can help generate state and local income tax. So, how would you respond to that?
ALAN ROWSOME: Yeah, I think that’s an argument that’s frequently made by those that think that the federal government can’t manage the land that it owns. But I think that’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy, because Congress has systematically under-funded the management of those lands for many years. Making it much more difficult for the federal government to, in fact, take on its mandate to manage those places.
The reason the federal government manages parks and public lands is, they’re managing them for the interests of all Americans. Since we all own a piece of these lands. If you were to sell or transfer them to states or private interests, you take away that right of all Americans to be able to have a say in the management of those lands. And you start to have special interests and people who have particular needs, or wants, on those lands can make those decisions without anyone to stop them.
I think that with 640 million acres of public lands in this country, it’s actually a relatively small amount of the total land mass. And it is a unique value that Americans put on protecting special places. Protecting our natural heritage, that has come to define us as a nation. And I think making a move that would allow a drilling company, or a logging industry, to have its say over the use of these lands, is not likely to be in the interests of all Americans. Who want to be able to have them and recreate on them.
I will also say that I think state budgets, in many instances, are not strong in many states where a state could actually manage these lands. It costs a lot more than people think it does to upkeep and maintain places that the American public can recreate in. It could quickly be a reality. And in fact, likely would be a reality. That if a state had a budget issue, and was managing more of these lands, it would need to sell those lands, and divest themselves of them in order to make budget. Or to make ends meet, when other budgetary constraints are harming them.
And so, that also makes it very likely that if you were to transfer federal lands to states, that the states wouldn’t actually intend to manage those lands as outdoor recreation, parks and wildlife refuges. They would instead likely look to divest them to private interests to manage. And it’s those private interests that are unlikely to abide by things like the Endangered Species Act, or the National Environmental Policy Act. That are ways that the American public continues to be able to have a say in the management of these places. And also to make sure that iconic species and that their own private property rights, in some instances, are protected.
So, it’s often an argument made that states would manage these lands better. But I think if you’re going to keep every American’s interest at heart — which is the entire reason behind our public land system — you want them managed by the federal government. And they do a good job of it, when they actually have the resources to do so. And those are resources that unfortunately have not come in recent years.
KIM BROWN: President-elect Donald Trump has said that he wants to reduce regulations that limit resource development, such as for oil and gas, but he’s also voiced opposition to transferring land control to states. Congressman Ryan Zinke, his nominee to be Secretary of the Interior, is also opposed to state control of public lands. So, could there be pushback from them, to this move by Congress?
ALAN ROWSOME: Yeah. I think that’s going to be very interesting how that shapes up, moving forward. Congressman Zinke is going to have nomination hearings in front of the Senate Energy Committee in the coming weeks. And no doubt will be asked about this House move to remove a procedural barrier that would pave the way for more federal land transfer. I suspect he will be asked, “What do you think about that House move? And as Secretary of Interior, how do you plan to steward our nation’s public lands to ensure that they are not sold and developed?”
President-elect Trump has similarly, I think, made welcome statements, and statements we certainly will plan to hold him to, in saying that he wants to be a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, that really values our publicly ands.
So, this could be an issue that is a dividing one among House Republicans, and the President-elect and some of his Cabinet members. And I think it remains to be seen how that plays out. But regardless, I think there is reason to be very concerned that some folks will want to have their cake and eat it too. And be able to say, on the one hand, we’re going to protect public lands that are important. But on another hand, we certainly should be transferring more of them to states, and private interests for fossil fuel development. And it’s our view that you can’t have it both ways.
These public lands belong to the American public for their enjoyment. And if you want to protect them, you need to protect all of them. If you do not feel that way, then we need to be putting those folks accountable for that type of decision-making.
So, it’ll be interesting to see, over the coming weeks, how that plays out. But it definitely could be a divisive point that will need to be rectified.
KIM BROWN: And President Obama recently designated two national wilderness monuments. Can you talk about those, and his legacy on conservation on America’s wilderness and public lands? Because many say that he could have gone further with, for example, a total ban of leases on fracking, or drilling for oil and gas on public land. How would you grade President Obama’s legacy on the issue of land conservation?
ALAN ROWSOME: I think President Obama’s environmental legacy is going to stand the test of time as one of the greatest environmental legacies in our nation’s history. The number of acres he’s protected, the forward-thinking work that he’s done, internationally and domestically on climate change, are a part of that. But certainly prudent, smart regulations that also ensure that our air and water are clean, play into that legacy, as well.
I think there is no doubt that what the President has been able to do during his eight years, has been a titanic effort in protecting lands and waters around the country. And in protecting a future for our children and grandchildren that need to have clean air and water as we grow as a nation. So, I think there’s always more you want to do. There’s always more you hope you have time to do. But with the protection of lands around the country, I think over 30 monuments have been designated. Many, many rules and regulations promulgated. Huge marine sanctuaries, marine monuments protected.
It’s going to be an incredible legacy that, certainly by acreage, goes beyond even what Teddy Roosevelt himself did in the early years of environmental protection. And is also beyond President Clinton and others in the 20th century, when it comes to land protection.
So, it’s going to be one of his greatest legacies. And I think no matter what anybody tries to do about it, it’s going to remain that way.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Alan Rowsome. He is the Senior Director of Government Relations for the Lands, at the Wilderness Society, a non-profit land conservation organization. He’s been joining us today from Washington, D.C. Alan, it was a pleasure speaking with you.
ALAN ROWSOME: It was a pleasure speaking with you, as well. Really appreciate being able to talk about these important issues.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.