U.S. Rep for Utah's 3rd congressional district, Jason Chafffetz, plans to pull controversial public lands sell-off bill

In a surprise late-evening Instagram post, U.S. Rep for Utah, Jason Chafffetz, announced his intent to withdraw the controversial “H.R. 621 – Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017” proposal.  If passed, the bill would have directed “…the Secretary of the Interior to sell certain Federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, previously identified as suitable for disposal, and for other purposes.”  Had it been put into law, it would have sold off tens of thousands of acres of federally managed public land in what was called a “competitive sale.”

The reaction from the public has been overwhelming positive and has come quickly.  Jason Chaffetz’s instagram post has already racked up 3,900 likes and over 1200 comments at the time of this writing.

Which Public Lands were at risk for “Disposal”?

If you’re curious about which lands were scheduled for disposal, you can read up on the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (Wikipedia) or by reviewing the law itself in PDF format – but be prepared with some extra coffee since it’s a long read.  It covers everything from agricultural planting allotments to dairy pricing and more.  The term “disposable lands” referred mostly to lands that were not valuable from the viewpoint of their potential agricultural output.  Times however, have changed and the value of public lands has along with it.  Since signing the REC Act into law in December, 2016 – the outdoor recreation economy, which arguably depends on the availability of federally managed public lands, can now be counted as part of the US Gross Domestic ProductOIA’s Outdoor Recreation Economy Report shows that outdoor recreation annually accounts for $646 billion in consumer spending, 6.1 million American jobs, $80 billion in federal state and local tax revenue and other significant economic activity across the country.

But that’s not all…

There are two other active proposals that have Public Land advocates cautiously alarmed.

Otherwise known as the “Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act” of 2017, H.R. 622 has the potential to negatively impact the management of federal public lands as well.   It seeks to “…terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and to provide block grants to States for the enforcement of Federal law on Federal land under the jurisdiction of these agencies, and for other purposes.”

In addition, the sanctity of the National Parks are questioned by Arizona Rep. Paul A. Gosar.  Gosar has recently submitted a resolution that threatens to repeal the National Park Service’s authority to manage private drilling for oil, gas and minerals at 40 national parks, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. Under what are known as the 9B rules, the Park Service, which controls the surface of natural parks, can decline drilling rights to parties that own resources beneath the surface if it determines that the operation would be an environmental threat.

There are more than 40 national parks where the federal government does not own the mineral rights below the surface, including Cuyahoga Valley NP in Ohio, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

The 9B rules are updates to rules established in 1978 setting reasonable safeguards for national parks from private oil and gas development. The rules simply require an operator to produce a Plan of Operations before accessing their mineral rights, give the National Park Service (NPS) the authority to conduct safety enforcement and provide standard technical requirements for the safeguarding of national park air, water, and wildlife.