Just over a week after Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill that would dispose of more than three million acres of public land, he announced on Instagram that he was withdrawing the bill.
The decision to withdraw H.R. 621 came quickly after companies in the outdoor industry, sporting associations, and citizens on social media displayed public opposition. A group of 20 organizations, including The Outdoor Industry Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation, sent a letter to Congress last week, and Joe Rogan’s post arguing against the bill received over 3,500 likes on Facebook.
Chaffetz responded on his social media accounts by maintaining his stance that the lands designated for sale were “serving no public purpose,” but ultimately backed down.
“Groups I support and care about fear it [H.R. 621] sends the wrong message,” Chaffetz, a Republican, said in the post.
Chaffetz stated H.R. 621 “calls for the responsible disposal of 3.3 million acres of land identified by the Clinton administration as being suitable for sale to non-federal entities.” Federally owned land currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management would be up for sale to private companies, an act that is historically rare.
“Congress abolished homesteading in 1976 with passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act,” according to the BLM, which “made it a national policy to retain most public lands in federal ownership.”
A majority of the 3.3 million acres that would have been sold are in western states like Utah, Nevada, and California. Most uses of the land, like camping and fishing, are free, while others, such as cattle grazing, require a permit. If H.R. 621 was introduced and passed, a chunk of those lands, roughly equal to the size of Connecticut, would be taken away. Losing an area of land that large would augment the current issue of habitat loss and take away a consistent source of income for the government.
According to the BLM’s website, “The BLM is one of a handful of Federal agencies that generates more revenue for the United States than it spends.” In 2012, BLM-managed lands generated over $5 billion. Sale of the land would only result in one-time income, as opposed to the continuous income the BLM lands yield now.
Keeping public lands under federal ownership and BLM management is a victory for outdoor enthusiasts and a sign of Chaffetz’s ability to meet the needs of the people he represents. However, it is a small victory in a larger battle to preserve natural open space. Chaffetz is still the main sponsor of H.R. 622, a bill that would “terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.” This would transfer the task of policing federally owned public lands to local sheriff’s deputies.
“It’s time to get rid of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service police. If there is a problem, your local sheriff is the first and best line of defense,” Chaffetz said in a press release. “By restoring local control in law enforcement, we enable federal agencies and county sheriffs to each focus on their respective core missions.”
Changing the law enforcement system over such large areas of land would be a time consuming, costly process. It could also leave sensitive areas understaffed and unprotected from illegal activity.