A U.S. congressman from Utah introduced a bill last week that would direct the Secretary of Interior to sell 694,200 acres of public land in Wyoming.
H.R.621 introduced by Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz targets about four percent of the Bureau of Land Management’s 17-million-acre holdings in the Equality State. The bill singles out property identified in a study that’s 20 years old.
“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 said in a statement. The identified acres “have been deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers.”
His website said the bill calls for the “responsible disposal” of 3.3 million acres nationwide. But a summary of the measure at Congress.gov says that it would “direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell…” the property, not necessarily dispose of it responsibly. Although the bill is catalogued as “introduced,” its text wasn’t available on the website by press time. “Delays can occur when there are a large number of bills to prepare or when a very large bill has to be printed,” the website said.
The 20-year-old report that is the foundation of the bill includes a page each for 22 of the 23 Wyoming counties listing acreages. Teton County is not on the list. The pages list BLM property ranging from 1,000 acres in Laramie County to 122,000 acres in Crook County, according to a copy of the 1997 document posted on Chaffetz’s website.
The bill attracted immediate criticism from conservation and environmental groups.
“Nobody really knows where these acres really are,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. In the 1997 report, “they didn’t provide a map.”
The Department of the Interior created the 1997 report in response to the 1996 Agriculture Reform Act that sought to identify lands with “potential for disposal or exchange,” as part of restoration of the Everglades in Florida. “…[M]any lands identified appear to have conflicts which may preclude them from being considered,” the 1997 report says. “ Conflicts include high disposal costs, critical natural or cultural resources and habitat, mineral claims and leases and hazardous conditions.”
Realty officer Mel Schlagel prepared the 22 Wyoming pages two decades ago, writing that they could be sold for as little as $30 an acre. That would bring in some $20 million, at least, to the federal government, not accounting for two decades of change in land prices.
In his documents for the Wyoming counties, Schlagel could not say whether the properties had mining claims, endangered species, wetlands/floodplains, historic/cultural resources, contamination or title issues.
“To me it looks like this bill is just a blind effort to divest large tracts of publicly owned lands to the private sector without taking a look at what the environmental consequences and public-access ramifications are,” Molvar said. In the last 20 years, Wyoming residents have resisted the sale or exchange of some public tracts, Molvar said, because of public resources on them like wildlife habitat and cultural sites.
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources on Jan. 24. There’s no indication the proposed legislation would take into account federal land managers’ assessment of the properties since 1997. Many, if not all, of Wyoming’s nine BLM districts have updated their land and resource management plans since then, possibly changing what in 1997 was deemed suitable for disposal.
For example, preservation of greater sage grouse habitat by the BLM weighed heavily in the 2015 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep that bird off the list of endangered and threatened species.
Chaffetz has introduced the bill in previous congressional sessions, without success. With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, its fate today could be different.
“In previous years there have been some checks and balances,” Molvar said. “While President Trump has made some statements that he’s not in favor of the private and local land seizure, there’s a lot of uncertainty what he would do.”
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Don LaVagne