A Few Things You Should Know About The Public Lands Debate

Mar 1, 2017

The future of America’s public lands has been a focus for debate recently. A federal bill this year would have transferred 3.3 million acres of federal land to the states. It was withdrawn earlier February, due to objections both sides of the aisle. But that doesn’t mean the issue is settled.

Oregon’s state land board is moving forward with the sale of Elliott State Forest, Oregon’s first public forest. That’s in spite of objections from Governor Kate Brown. They said the forest wasn’t generating enough income for public schools. A timber firm is the likely buyer - and only bidder. Now, some Oregon lawmakers want to create a task force to study potential transfers of federal land to states.

Budget tensions often fuel public land decisions. They cost money to maintain - and strained state budgets can benefit from an influx of cash. But states can also earn money leasing the land to timber companies or others who want to harvest its natural resources, and there’s also the question of public recreational use.

The budget was one reason Idaho’s Republican governor Butch Otter opposed a bill that would have given some of Idaho’s federally-managed lands to the state: Idaho would have been responsible for managing them out of their own budget. But some Republican state lawmakers still want Idaho to control more of the federal lands in the state. 60 percent of the state is owned by the federal government.

Washington hasn’t seen any changes to its public land policies, but it elected a new Commissioner of Public Lands this year. Hilary Franz ran as a Democrat. The Chinook Observer reports that she won support from environmental groups. But Franz also talked about “strengthening rural economic health,” and has pointed to Washington’s lands as economic resources for communities dependent on their natural resources.

While federal lands may not be sold off right away, the Trump administration could open them up to more private development such as oil drilling. That could soon be underway near Zion National Park in Utah. President Trump has talked about increasing fossil fuel production in the U.S., including on federal lands. Trump’s environmental plan explicitly calls for more oil and natural gas exploration. But Newsweek points to contradictions in the administration’s plans that make it unclear what the future may look like for public lands.