Amendment No. 838 (Purpose: To establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land) At the appropriate place, insert the following: SEC. ___. SPENDING-NEUTRAL RESERVE FUND RELATING TO THE DISPOSAL OF CERTAIN FEDERAL LAND.
The Chairman of the Committee on the Budget of the Senate may revise the allocations of a committee or committees, aggregates, and other appropriate levels in this resolution for one or more bills, joint resolutions, amendments, amendments between the Houses, motions, or conference reports relating to initiatives to sell or transfer to, or exchange with, a State or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument, by the amounts provided in such legislation for those purposes, provided that such legislation would not raise new revenue and would not increase the deficit over either the period of the total of fiscal years 2016 through 2020 or the period of the total of fiscal years 2016 through 2025.
At the end of last month the US Senate passed the above, 51-49. My understanding is that as a budget amendment it holds no force nor compels any action, but given the larger social context the vote has attracted a lot of attention, binding or no. In the near sense it all started in Utah, with a law voted in over 3 years ago which “provides a framework for transferring public lands into state ownership.” To keep a long story simple, there is compelling evidence that the Utah law is intended to make those federal lands private, and that the interests behind the Utah effort are those responsible for the continued national prominence of the issue, and the recent senate budget amendment. This concerns me deeply, and to that end I’ve written the Montana congressional delegation, especially junior senator Steve Daines, who voted for said amendment after specifically stating on multiple occasions that he did not support the transfer of federal lands to the states. In response to two different letters I received the following letter (twice, identical both times), which has been edited for length.
Dear Mr. Chenault,
Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition to a recent amendment to the Senate budget resolution related to federal lands. As a fifth generation Montanan, please know that I do not support the transfer of federal public lands to state ownership or the sale of public lands that would reduce Montana’s access to these lands.
Senate Amendment No. 838, sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), does not sell, transfer, or exchange any federal lands. Such action would require the enactment of separate legislation. With that said, states and local governments and Indian Tribes routinely come to Congress to obtain land transfers or conveyances to be used for economic development or to address checker-boarded estates or split estates, a common problem for communities in Montana… The Murkowski Amendment could help facilitate a solution to that matter and enable other exchanges, sales or transfers with states or local governments. These policies are often used to craft balanced public lands measures that strengthen conservation, facilitate economic development, and empower states, local and tribal governments. In fact, these types of exchanges were vital to enacting the 2014 comprehensive lands package, which included the most significant Montana conservation measures in more than 30 years. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act protected nearly 700,000 acres in Montana-400,000 acres along the Flathead River in addition to about 270,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front, including 67,000 acres of new wilderness. The 2014 lands package was a historic agreement for Montana and would not have occurred without other land exchanges being enacted alongside the landmark conservation measures. For Montana, the package included the Northern Cheyenne Lands Act, which transferred over 1,500 federally-controlled acres into trust for that Tribe. Another example of the kind of land exchange that could be facilitated by the Murkowski Amendment includes a land transfer in 1996 used to prevent a gold mine from being constructed outside of Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City in return for the state of Montana receiving Otter Creek coal tracts. It is important to note that budget rules threatened the completion of the 2014 lands package. As a result, the Murkowski amendment is designed to safeguard future transfers or exchanges from budgetary hurdles, and to protect the ability of Congress to enact landmark conservation measures like the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. As a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, please know I will keep your concerns in mind should the committee consider related legislation and continue to fight to protect public lands in Montana…
I responded to the senator, thanking him for his letter and his work on the North Fork and Rocky Mountain front acts, expressing skepticism about that the amendment would be limited to the actions he outlined, and requesting that he make a greater effort to make his objection to federal land transfers plain to Montanans. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of the whole mess. The Utah effort can be traced quite directly to a debate which has been simmering since the late 1800s and the rush of western statehood; was it constitutional for the federal government to establish management and “ownership” of so much land? For example, 86% of Nevada is managed by various federal agencies. There are many practical arguments to be made on every side, but in the end I think the debate comes down to ideology, which explains its remarkable endurance. I come down on the side of federalism, and think that the history of these lands being owned by the whole citizenry provides more than enough evidence as to why they should remain in federal custody.
In any case, it is not an issue which is going to go away any time soon.