Something significant occurred on February 2nd that should offer some glimmer of hope for wilderness enthusiasts. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) withdrew his recently introduced bill H.R. 621. Labeled as the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017, this bill would have mandated the transfer of approximately 3 million acres of federal land in the Western United States to state ownership.
This transfer would have been highly significant given the ease with which state governments are now able to sell state-owned land to private interests. Considering the financial hardships faced by many states, the prospect of wealthy oil and gas interests purchasing state land for fossil fuel exploration is a terrifying reality. Anyone who supports the prevention of fracking and increasing coal mining in public lands should have been irate at this quiet attempt to transfer these public lands.
The hope for preventative action from all nature enthusiasts appears to be the reason why Chaffetz withdrew his bill less than two weeks after its introduction. Citing significant backlash from constituents — including public demonstrations — he proudly reiterated his love for the outdoors, particularly for fishing and hunting. In a post from his Instagram account, Chaffetz (standing near a river and dressed in hunting apparel) offered the following explanation, “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.”
It’s easy to credit Chaffetz with a change of heart or to suggest he finally realized the importance of accessible public lands in people’s lives. The reality is that public resistance worked. In the true spirit of the philosophy of “pick your battles,” he recognized that a majority of his constituents were opposed to this bill. Maintaining a position that requires voter approval means that politicians must pay close attention to how their constituents feel about their job performance, actions, and decisions.
Despite comments made to Field & Stream in January of 2016, in which he decried the idea of the sale of state-owned lands, President Trump has shown little support for wilderness preservation at the onset of his administration. Lawmakers will certainly see this as an opportunity to introduce legislation with potentially damaging results to America’s public lands. This has already occurred in the passing of H.R. 5, where, buried in the resolution, is the provision that the conveyance of Federal land to a State “shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.” This made the sale or transfer of these Federal lands significantly easier and more difficult to prevent.
The onus, then, is on the citizens of the United States to use the power we are afforded, our voice and our vote, to stand up to this blatant disregard for public lands. Our elected officials are still expected to act as the legislative representatives of the people they serve. Their performance should be closely scrutinized and we must hold them accountable when their actions contradict their words. This need for public resolve will be continuously tested, further illustrated one day after the withdrawal of H.R. 621 when Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) introduced H.R. 861. This bill, labeled “To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency,” clearly has no hidden agenda. It is, in fact, blatantly obvious.
The fundamental element of American democracy is the notion of checks and balances. The idea that spreading power among multiple branches and agencies of the government will prevent consolidation of power and the potential for tyranny. Many believe that the Trump administration will test this principle, perhaps as no other US president has before him. This places far more importance on an active and engaged public. Vocal and public opposition can and does have an impact on the actions of our elected officials. Protection of our public lands, and wilderness conservation as a whole, will require aggressive vigilance during the entirety of this current administration. It is vital to understand that they will listen if we all speak loudly enough.