GOP begins public land overhaul

GOP begins public land overhaul
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Conservatives, industry groups and reformers pushing to overhaul public land policy say there's a lot to like from the first month of GOP control in Washington.

Lawmakers have passed several bills undoing Obama-era regulations that conservatives opposed, arguing they give the federal government too much control over lands issues.

Reform proponents hope that previews a broader overhaul once President Trump is able to put his energy and environment teams in place.

“There are so many different groups that are looking for some relief after the last eight years that Congress and the administration are kind of drinking from the firehose at this point,” said Ethan Lane, the executive director of the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which has advocated for federal land reform. 

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Drillers, miners and conservatives in the West — which has most of the federal government’s land holdings — have long pushed back against the more liberal land management approach pursued by the Obama administration, which focused on conservation and stricter rules on fossil fuel and mineral development. 

They see an opening under Trump, who has promised to expand fossil fuel production on public lands and ease Obama-administration rules that critics call burdensome.

“We’re looking for someone who understands that there’s a balance on public lands and that the vast majority of the mineral estate is working landscapes,” Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the Western Energy Alliance industry group, said of potential appointments to public land positions. 

In the last two weeks, the House has passed several Congressional Review Act resolutions undoing Obama-administration environmental regulations, including several opposed by industry groups and land reformers. 

One of those resolutions ends a Bureau of Land Management rule restricting venting and flaring at natural gas drilling sites on public land. The rule would limit methane pollution, but industry groups say it would be duplicative, unnecessary and costly.

“The oil and gas industry is and should be heavily regulated, but what we saw at the end of the Obama administration was not about reasonable regulations, it was about using regs to drive companies off of public,” Sgamma said. “The GOP is moving in a different direction.” 

But that’s not reformers’ only win. 

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), Trump’s pick to lead the Interior Department, has a moderate streak on public land ownership. But he, too, has been a foe of Obama-era energy rules and seems primed to step back from an Obama administration overhaul of the coal royalty program that Democrats hoped would lead to higher fees for mining. 

The House also blocked a BLM land planning rule, finalized in December, that foes said gave too much power to the federal government. Both that and the methane measure are awaiting a vote in the Senate and have the White House’s support. 

House debate over the planning rule was a microcosm of the broader fight over public lands. 

Public land policy — from resource regulations to federal ownership — has been a major concern for many conservatives, who want to distribute more power over lands to states and private entities. 

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who introduced the bill undoing the planning rule, said the GOP has its chance to change the course set by Obama.

“It is hugely important for us, as we go forward here, to make sure that we have done everything we can to roll back regulations that are really killing our jobs, that are preventing people in our local communities from being able to make a living, from being able to  consistently graze, for example, on these public lands,” she said during a floor debate on Tuesday.

Democrats, though, have called the GOP approach an assault on public land ownership.

“It's time to face the facts: congressional Republicans do not value our nation's public lands the way everyday Americans do,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Tuesday.

“The American public does not support erasing the planning rule and they certainly don't support the broad anti-public land agenda being pushed by Republicans.”

Environmentalists and conservation supporters oppose several of the GOP’s early moves.  

“I think it’s gone pretty poorly, and it’s a question of where you draw the line,” said Chris Saeger, the director of the Western Values Project.

Activists pushing their allies to hold the line against the GOP are working to kick up grassroots opposition to public land changes, an effort that they say has had at least some success so far. 

Conservationists blistered a House rule change in January that makes it easier for the government to shed its public land holdings. And, earlier this month, Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzChaplain controversy shifts spotlight to rising GOP star Ingraham’s ratings spike a wake-up for advertisers Boehner to campaign for House GOP candidates MORE (R-Utah) was forced to rescind a bill to sell off millions of acres of federally owned land after a backlash from sportsmen’s groups. 

“I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands,” Chaffetz wrote alongside a rustic Instagram post of himself in hunting camouflage, holding a dog. 

“The bill would have disposed of small parcels of lands Pres. Clinton identified as serving no public purpose but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message,” he added.

Public lands advocates hope to exert similar public pressure as Trump and the GOP move forward.

“The sportsmen community has been woken up: you poked that bear and that bear came out,” said Land Tawney, the head of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. 

“The pushback was very welcoming to see, and I hope it sets a precedent for anybody else who wants to push these bills forward.”

Environmentalists and conservationists are gearing up a Senate showdown on the methane rule, making an economic case — that methane leak restrictions lead to more gas sales and tax revenue — that they hope will attract some Republicans to support the regulation.

They’re also bracing for a broader public lands fight when the Senate confirms Zinke. 

Saeger noted, for instance, that Chaffetz used a meeting with Trump this week to slam an Obama-administration designation of a national monument in his state. That means officials soon might be pushed to consider making high-profile decisions deeply opposed by conservation groups or environmentalists. 

That will be a test for Zinke and Trump’s stated support for public lands.

“That is a pretty low bar to cross: to say that we are not going to sell off our public lands is not saying much,” Saeger said.

“The rubber hits the road when oil companies knock on their door and ask for permission to drill on those lands.”