Federal Land Use – Republican Regression

Guest Commentary

Published April 23, 2017

As of March 27, 2017 the American people, Native Americans in particular, lost some of our say in the use of federal land. While we’ve been distracted by the White House soap opera, shaking our heads at Trump’s latest Tweet, hustling to defeat draconian changes in our health care and lashing out at racist immigration policies, the Republican controlled House and Senate have quietly subverted the rules of our land, the rules that govern the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A few weeks ago President Trump signed Public Law #115-12.

Allow me to explain how this happened, what Public Law #115-12 means and why it was so important to the Republican agenda.

Public Law #115-12 which started off as House Joint Bill #44, introduced into the House by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). It’s a one-paragraph bill that simply wipes out legislation that Obama had signed just months earlier (12/12/16) – a much needed reform in BLM guidelines.

Let me back up even further to explain the importance of BLM. Twenty-eight percent of the landmass that makes up the United States is federally owned land – belonging to ‘we the people.’ The National Park Service manages over half that land. But, the remaining land – wilderness areas, grazing lands, mineral estates, etc. – 247 million acres – is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In conjunction with the EPA, the BLM policies have a major impact on our environment, addressing issues like the rivers that run through federal lands, regulation of mining rights, etc. They make decisions that impact all U.S. land and most especially lands – such as tribal lands that share borders with federal land.

BLM guidelines had not been updated since 1983. The Obama administration wanted to reform BLM – certainly the Standing Rock protest – pointing to DAPL’s impact on Oceti Sakowin land – provided some of their insight. The December 2016 BLM reform bill stated simply:

“The final rule affirms the important role of other Federal agencies, State and local governments, Indian tribes, and the public during the planning process and enhances opportunities for public involvement and transparency during the preparation of resource management plans.”

The goal was to streamline the process of reviews and changes to land use and to:

“Emphasize the role of using high quality information, including the best available scientific information, in the planning process; and the importance of evaluating the resource, environmental, ecological, social, and economic conditions at the onset of planning.”

Since the reform bill included state and local governments input, we have to wonder why the Republicans were so eager to annihilate it. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) introduced the bill (H.J. 44) to repeal Obama’s BLM reforms on January 30, 2017 just weeks after Trump’s inauguration. It quickly passed through the House Committee on Natural Resources, was debated in the House for less than an hour and passed on February 7th. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced an identical bill into the Senate the following day and was passed with a 51-48 vote on March 7th, then signed by the President on March 27th. Less than two months, start to finish, this simple revisionist rule was obviously very important to the western states – including Alaska & Wyoming – where nearly half the land is owned by the federal government.

As we saw with the standoff at Standing Rock, Republican-run states like North Dakota (and most western states) abhor what they see as federal interference with projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. When Obama introduced BLM reform – in part so tribes like Oceti Sakowin would have a greater voice in federally backed projects that impact tribal lands – Republicans hated it, complaining that it marginalizes local and state input in the federal land-management process.

Rep. Cheney told the House Committee that BLM has “centralized authority for land-use decisions in Washington, D.C., and cannot be trusted to coordinate with state and local leaders if not required to do so.” Her statement implies that BLM’s old way of doing things, a complex, protracted process, somehow let state and local governments feel that they had more power over federal land use.

It’s clear that Republicans simply did not like the intent of Obama’s BLM reform bill. The benefits of the new BLM rules were well defined in a joint letter to Congress by seventeen national environmental groups – including Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, etc. They pointed out the benefits of the new 2016 BLM guidelines:

  • Increases efficiency and public participation in planning – saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
  • Preserves priority status for local government in planning.Increases transparency in planning.
  • Improves science-based decision making in planning.
  • Without the new rule, public land management will continue to be contentious, inefficient and costly.
We are all too familiar with Republican support of the oil and mining industry agenda to sidestep environmental protection laws. And, Republicans have always sided with states rights over federal oversight. According to Carol Hardy Vincent, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy, “Some states are seeking more state and local control over federal lands and resources.” Many are also looking for broader rights and influence over the tribal lands in their state as well.

When Law #115-12 quietly passed on March 27th – negating the Obama-era reforms of guidelines for the Bureau of Land Management – we all lost a say in the use of our precious lands. All we can do now, while we wait for Republicans control of Washington to diminish, is work at the state and local level to mitigate their intended exploitation of our lands.

Dave Rhody, a San Francisco writer and former community organizer, has supported Native American rights throughout his life. Born in South Dakota, his first book, “Dakota White,” explored the role of homestead families in Lakota oppression.

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