House approves transparency hurdle to new federal land acquisition

The House passed legislation Thursday that would prevent the federal government from acquiring new land until it creates a public website showing how much land it holds, and which properties are suitable to be sold.

Members supported that policy change by passing the Public Access and Lands Improvement Act, H.R. 2954. The bill is composed of several other bills dealing with the federal government's ownership of land, including measures allowing the conveyance of land, extending cattle grazing permits, and allowing kayaking on Wyoming rivers and streams that are now off limits.

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Some pieces of the bill come from Democrats. However, the bill passed mostly on the strength of Republican support, in a 220-194 vote that saw just six Democrats support the measure.

Republicans from western states have long argued that the federal government is failing in its duty to adequately manage the land it holds, even as it constantly adds to its holdings. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has noted over the years that the federal government owns huge portions of land in the west, but said today that the government is increasingly unable to manage these properties.

"What we simply have found is the federal government has large, centralized bureaucracies that do our land management process that no longer meet the needs of people," he said.

"It is mind-boggling that the nation who defeated the Soviet Union with creativity and freedom, still decides to solve all problems and all management issues by going back to a Soviet-style agency program," he added.

Bishop is the author of the language requiring the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to publicly list all its property, and designate which properties can be sold, before it acquires new property. Republicans defended the proposal as one that should be easy to implement for the government.

"When a Seahawks fan can purchase a championship hat on the Internet, just moments after the Super Bowl ends, the federal government can certainly get its act together and post its lands that are available for sale online," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

Democrats opposed the idea by saying it's a Republican attempt to gum up the works at BLM.

"This is couched as a transparency measure, when in reality, it's nothing more than an attempt to prevent and delay BLM from doing its all-important work," Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) argued.

Elsewhere, the bill includes language extending federal grazing permits from 10 to 20 years. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said this change is needed because the federal government can't process the applications quickly enough, leading to uncertainty among rangers about their grazing rights.

It authorizes timber salvage operations in California forests that suffered from wildfire last year. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said environmental reviews are holding up this important work, and that without quick authorization, the timber will rot — ruining a valuable asset and encouraging infestation.

It would also allow for the conveyance of land from the federal government to counties in Florida, Alaska and Nevada. Democrats said the opposed the land conveyance language because they are excused from environmental review, and don't require the federal government to be compensated.

Democrats also opposed language they said would overturn efforts to protect endangered animals in North Carolina. Earlier in the week, the White House said it opposes the bill for these reasons.

"Overall, H.R. 2954 contains a number of provisions that would undermine the responsible balance of interests and considerations in the stewardship of the Nation's lands and natural resources," it said in the SAP. "Further, provisions of the bill would disregard or reduce public engagement on a range of community interests, including natural resource protections, and preclude agencies from considering less environmentally detrimental alternatives."

The White House did not say President Obama would veto the bill, and added that it supports language to restore public land in Washington and the Chesapeake Bay. But broad Democratic opposition is nonetheless expected to prompt Senate Democrats to ignore the bill.

Before the final vote, the House rejected one Democratic amendment, and approved four GOP amendments. Those proposals were from:

— Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), would strike language that prohibits BLM from acquiring new land until it creates a public website showing its current land holdings and land that suitable to be sold off. Failed 190-224.

— Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), amends language extending grazing permits to allow the government to consolidate environmental reviews, and make other changes. Passed in voice vote.

— Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), requires environmental groups that unsuccessfully challenge the government's grazing policies to pay fees and expenses of the directly affected parties. Passed 218-198.

— Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), adds language that gives the government flexibility to implement a salvage logging and restoration pilot project in land affected by wildfires in 2013. Passed in voice vote.

— Don Young (R-Alaska), approves an Alaska Native Veterans land allotment application. Passed in voice vote.