Good News for Public Lands! (No, Really!)

When a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of federal land hit Congress, the public made a big stink—and won.

Bob Wick, BLM/Flickr

Almost two weeks ago, a bill arrived in the House of Representatives called the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017. If that title alone doesn’t have you quaking in your hiking boots, here are the details: Introduced by Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, the bill, also known as H.R. 621, sought to sell off some 3.3 million acres in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Chaffetz’s reasoning, he said, was that these parcels had been identified as “serving no public purpose.”

Well, the public begged to differ.

More than 1,000 outdoorspeople and conservationists gathered in the Capitol building in Helena, Montana, on Monday for a “Public Lands in Public Hands” rally to protest the bill. “This ain’t about politics,” Governor Steve Bullock told the crowd. “Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or Libertarian or vegetarian, these lands belong to you.” Two days later, a similar rally drew hundreds more in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Chaffetz listened. On Wednesday night, he posted an Instagram of himself decked out in camo and in the company of his adorable hunting dog.

I am withdrawing HR 621. I'm a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands. The bill would have disposed of small parcels of lands Pres. Clinton identified as serving no public purpose but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message. The bill was originally introduced several years ago. I look forward to working with you. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.

Now, H.R. 621 certainly isn’t the only imminent threat to our public lands. In fact, it isn’t even the only threat to come from this particular representative. Chaffetz introduced another bill at the same time as H.R. 621 called―wait for it―H.R. 622. This piece of legislation would terminate the law enforcement functions of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management on federal lands and hand it over to local law enforcement. It’s still very much on the table.

No, public lands are definitely not out of the woods. Represntative Ryan Zinke of Montana, possibly our next secretary of the Department of the Interior, recently voted to make it easier for the government to sell off wilderness. And President Trump wants to expand oil and gas drilling on federal lands. The public may have won a battle for what’s rightfully ours this week, but we haven’t yet won the war.

Still, it’s important to savor the victories. Americans from all different backgrounds came together for a common cause, and their elected official actually represented them. That is what democracy looks like. And just in this one instance, we’re 3.3 million acres the better for it!

Judging from the reaction to Chaffetz’s withdrawal, these groups are in it for the long haul. “[Chaffetz’s] fellow lawmakers should take note of the ire and rapid response by hunters and anglers,” Land Tawney, CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said in a press release. “We aren’t going away.”

Brad Brooks, deputy director of the Wilderness Society’s Idaho office, offered a similar call to action: “We plan to hold Rep. Chaffetz and the rest of Congress accountable every time they fail to protect the places that celebrate our outdoor and cultural heritage.”

So going forward, don’t keep calm—there is absolutely nothing normal about the Trump administration’s assault on the environment—but absolutely, positively do carry on.


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