Proposed Legislation Dealing with Federal Land Transfers

Conventional wisdom among some groups holds that the Republicans are pushing bills through Congress to transfer the federal lands--national forests, national parks, and BLM lands--to the states--probably with the expectation that the states would sell the lands. This is, at the very least, an exaggeration.

In fact, no bill has proposed a wholesale transfer of national forests or national parks to the states. One bill did propose to transfer BLM lands to the states, but it wasn't pushed very hard and didn't get very far.

Here is a synopsis of some of the more important pieces of legislation that were introduced into the 104th Congress. (Links to the bills listed below take you to the Library of Congress' ftp site. Click "back" on your browser to get back here.)

S. 1031 is the bill that would transfer BLM lands to the states. Sponsored by Senators Thomas (R-WY), Simpson (R-WY), Burns (R-MT), Craig (R-MT), Stevens (R-AK), Kempthorne (R-ID), and Helms (R-NC), the bill directs the Secretary of the Interior to "offer to transfer all right, title, and interest" in BLM lands to the states in which the lands are located.

State governors would have two years in which to accept or reject the offer. States would have to accept all lands and could not pick and choose. Title would not be transferred until ten years after a state accepts the offer. Once gaining title to the land, states would have to honor all leases, permits, and claims issued or made before the transfer and would also be required to manage wilderness areas under the terms of the Wilderness Act.

Little action was taken on the bill, which seemed to be little more than a discussion draft. Few states expressed interest in accepting BLM lands unless they could choose the ones they wanted and leave the rest behind. For example, Oregon's Democratic governor and Republican legislature are excited about the possibility of getting the valuable "O&C" timber lands in the western part of the state, but have less interest in the arid range lands in the eastern part of the state.

Although no bills were introduced to transfer the National Forest System to the states, Alaska Representative Don Young did introduce the "Tongass Transfer and Transition Act" (H.R. 2413), which would allow the Alaska legislature to elect to take over the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest. This would be a good deal for Alaska, which would not only get the land but all Forest Service motor vehicles (which the Forest Service would have to paint in State of Alaska colors) as well as all gross timber receipts during the year prior to actual transfer of title. The bill was introduced late in 1995 and did not go anywhere.

The "National Park System Reform Act of 1995" (H.R. 260) is sometimes described as the "parks review commission bill." Unlike the base closures commission, the bill would not automatically create a parks review commission. Instead, the bill would direct the Park Service to adopt criteria for reviewing existing parks and then apply those criteria. The Park Service would then suggest which agency or entity should take over any parks not meeting the criteria. The parks review commission would only be created if the Park Service failed to complete this work.

Although this bill nearly passed the 103rd Congress, it was the victim of a major smear campaign in 1995.

Of all of the title-transfer bills, this was the only one to pass out of committee. But the flurry of negative press notices successfully killed the bill on the House floor. At the end of the session, the bill's proponents were trying to get it attached to one of the budget bills, but it is too soon to know whether they were successful.

The bill's opposition was led by the National Parks and Conservation Association, whose preference is to increase park funding rather than reduce the number of parks. On their behalf, Representative Bill Richardson (D-NM) introduced the "Common Sense National Park System Reform Act," which directed the Park Service to prepare a "National Park System Plan." The bill would also reform concessions and allow parks to collect and keep more recreation fees. But none of the bill's provisions addressed the major problem with the parks: that members of Congress use them as pork.

Although not exactly a title transfer, Senator Pete Dominici's (R-NM) bill to reform federal range programs effectively granted ranchers property rights to the land they lease. This bill, S. 852, is discussed in detail in the article on range reform by Karl Hess.

Other public land bills tended to turn the environmentalists' predilection for prescriptive legislation against them. The timber salvage sale rider which passed as part of the budget recissions bill directed the Forest Service and BLM to sell more salvage sales. Dominici's bill is also highly prescriptive. So long as environmentalists seek prescriptive legislation as a solution to environmental problems, they are likely to see such legislation turned against them.

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