Legal Updates

Proposed Public Land Sale Falls to Public Opposition

On February 1, 2017, Representative Jason Chaffetz (UT-R) announced that he would pull a bill proposing to sell more than 3 million acres of public land.  It was easy to lose track of this sea-change proposal amidst the flurry of activity at the advent of the Trump administration, but the bill’s goal – as well as its failure – is noteworthy despite the fact that it is unlikely to become law.

Focusing first on the proposal, Mr. Chaffetz, a Republican Representative from Utah and chair of the House Oversight Committee, memorialized the argument held by some, especially in the West, that the federal government owns too much land, to the detriment of states.  In his home state of Utah, the legislature is seeking the “return” of federal lands to the state.  See  Debate over federal property ownership has existed since the country’s inception, but recently the debate came to a head with Cliven Bundy and other groups claiming ownership over federally leased land.  States like Utah also challenged the extent and alleged burden of federal lands within their borders, while conservatives like Mr. Chaffetz aimed to turn that public sentiment into law.  House Republicans recently changed their internal rules to generally facilitate selling public land, and Mr. Chaffetz offered H.R. 621, which would sell 3.3 million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands spread across ten western states, and H.R. 622, which would transfer federal agencies’ policing power to local law enforcement. See

But an unusual coalition promptly emerged in response to the proposed sell-off.  Though their intended uses of the public land differ, conservationists teamed with sportsmen to voice their opposition, embarking on a campaign to frequently, consistently, and vociferously contact their representatives.  Indeed, this opposition tracks public opinion polling on the issue, which generally prefers preservation of the public resources.  See (and polling data therein).  As seen with other recent opposition movements surrounding the Affordable Care Act and Cabinet nominations, for example, individual advocacy at least garnered the attention of those in the bulls eye.  And in the case of public land policy, it yielded some success for the hunters, anglers, and environmentalists, at least in the near term.  On February 1st, Mr. Chaffetz posted on his Instagram (along with a picture of him in camouflage) that “groups I support and care about fear [H.R. 621] sends the wrong message” and “I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”  See; also  The failure of this first attempted sell-off does not mean all public lands will remain under federal control or policy will remain static – indeed H.R. 622 is still alive – but it does indicate that major changes to public land policy will not fly unnoticed under the public’s radar, even in these tumultuous political times.