With Trump at the Helm, Could Republicans Fast-Track Privatizing Public Lands?

Mixed messages from the president-elect—including calls for expanding oil and gas exploration while protecting ‘these magnificent lands’—have conservationists concerned.
(Photo: Scott Smith/Getty Images)
Nov 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

When it comes to the American West, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” still rings mostly true. The federal government (and by proxy, U.S. citizens) owns 47 percent of America’s 11 contiguous Western states.

But even prior to President-elect Donald Trump’s environmentally catastrophic policy promises, there has been a call from Republicans to turn that land over to state and local officials, potentially privatizing millions of acres of open space to use for expanded development, mineral extraction, oil drilling, or other uses.

Now, with a new administration set to take the reins, environmentalists are scrambling to figure out where and how to galvanize opposition against an administration that has yet to clarify its positions.

“There are a lot of questions in what he’ll do with public lands,” said Sharon Buccino, land and wildlife program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The uncertainty comes partly from Trump’s own words. He told Field and Stream earlier this year that he didn’t like the idea of selling the lands to states because “you don’t know what a state is going to do. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”

At the same time, Trump has pledged to save the nation’s coal industry in part by nixing the Obama administration’s freeze on new coal mines on federal land. He has also promised to undo policies he sees as executive overreach. Obama’s national monument designations in Hawaii, California, Maine, and the Atlantic Ocean could all fall under that umbrella.

“He’s on record as saying he values the importance of our federal lands, but you look at the people Trump has looked to for guidance, and you see the Republic National Committee platform is basically calling for as much of the public lands to open to drilling as possible,” Buccino said.

A majority of these 640 million acres are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and are open to hunting, ranching, hiking, and camping. The agency also leases out portions of the land for logging, mining, oil drilling, and natural gas fracking—activities that can exacerbate the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and affect habitat critical to the West’s wildlife, including gray wolves, endangered black-footed ferrets, and the greater sage grouse.

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Transferring public lands to state or local ownership would normally require Congress’ approval; the process that seemed unlikely as recently as two weeks ago has become a possibility under Trump.

“It’s been mostly rhetoric, but some of that rhetoric has built over time into what could become a national agenda,” Buccino said.

The movement toward state control of land has both ideological and economical explanations. Early support came following activist movements such as Cliven Bundy’s stand in Nevada against the Bureau of Land Management’s practice of charging for grazing on public land, and his son Ammon Bundy’s armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

At the same time, Republican state lawmakers in places such as Utah and Arizona are introducing bills seeking the transfer of millions of acres to the state. In its 2016 Republican Party Platform, the GOP touted public land transfers as a bid to increase states’ rights and grow state revenue streams from mineral and fossil fuel extractions, and potential future development.

But that cash windfall might not be so easy to attain.

In Wyoming, state officials researched the benefits of transferring management responsibilities of some 25 million acres of land from federal to state control. The results showed no positive revenue gains for the state, and a transfer attempt would most likely result in years of legal wrangling and negotiations.

“Without significant changes to federal law, we would not anticipate any substantial gains in revenue production or additional sources of revenue with any transfer of management—certainly not enough to offset the enormous costs such an endeavor would likely entail,” the report stated.

Land transfers to the state could also leave endangered species dealing with new threats, according to Bill Ruple, a research professor at the University of Utah. He looked at the proposed H.R. 866, which would allow states to take over permitting responsibilities for oil and gas leases on federal land. It would also exempt energy development from reviews that determine impacts to animals protected under the Endangered Species Act—a law that has been integral in recovering some of the country’s most iconic animals, including bison, grizzly bears, and bald eagles.

“There is nothing inherently better about state managers,” Ruple wrote in an email to TakePart. “The real debate is over how our public lands should be managed, not who manages them. Bills like H.R. 866 are dangerous not because of state management, but because they eliminate substantive protections, and because they reduce transparency and opportunities for the American people to voice their opinions about how our public lands should be managed.”

As Trump and the Republican Congress review possibilities of public land transfers, there is also the question of whether the federal land Obama designated as national monuments will remain protected.

In his time in office, Obama used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to protect more land and ocean area than any other president before him.

He created monuments protecting Maine’s North Woods, expanded monuments across California’s fragile desert landscape, created the largest protected place on the planet off Hawaii, and designated the first ever marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Some industry groups see Trump’s election as an opportunity to limit protections in these newly designated regions meant to prevent drilling, mining, and fishing. The commercial fishing industry–backed Saving Seafood group hopes it can continue fishing in the 5,000-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

“Whether it’s the radical step of revoking the designation or modifying it to allow nondestructive, sustainable fishing to take place, which we think is rational, I don’t know,” Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, told CBS News.

The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

While the Antiquities Act gives the president power to designate national monuments, it is unclear whether a president has the legal authority to rescind a designation.

“The ability to eliminate or destroy a national monument does not exist under the Antiquities Act, and no monument has ever been eliminated that way,” Buccino said. “It would be unprecedented.”