Republican Congressmen from several Western states are running with a theme that emerged during the recent armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
A panel of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Thursday discussed two measures that would let states take over management of large swaths of federal land. The Subcommittee on Federal Lands heard Alaska GOP Congressman Don Young pitch his idea to let states buy national forest land from the federal government to increase timber production.
The panel also listened to Idaho Republican Raul Labrador pitch an alternative. It would let interested states take over management of at least 200,000 acres of national forest within their borders.
"I believe we will find local control superior to management from Washington, D.C.,” Labrador said. ”The result will be more sustainable rural economies as well as improved stewardship of public lands."
Labrador told the committee he was confident that under state management national forest lands would generate more revenue to fund county operations and be more widely thinned to reduce wildfire risk.
The U.S. Senate did not deign to grant a hearing to similar legislation passed by the House of Representatives in 2013.
The Obama administration sent a deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service to Thursday's Congressional hearing to register its opposition.
'A non-starter with hunters and anglers'
A sportsmen's group blasted the proposed bills as misguided and "an affront" that would result in the loss of public access to recreational lands.
"This is the most overt discussion of seizing or selling off public lands to take place on Capitol Hill," said Whit Fosbergh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "At what point will lawmakers see that this is a non-starter with hunters, anglers, and American families who enjoy public access to outdoor recreation?”
Labrador asserted that local control would not limit or restrict hunting and fishing access. The congressman, who represents western and northern Idaho, noted that more than 60 percent of his home state's land base is currently in federal hands.
Labrador gave credit to county commissioners from five rural Idaho counties for devising the concept for what his legislation calls "community forest demonstration areas." One of the county officials involved in meetings that began in 2011, Valley County Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank, was invited to testify to Congress Thursday.
"When the national forests were created over 100 years ago, the federal government sold the idea of public ownership of forest lands by promising a steady supply of natural resources for economic stability," Cruickshank testified. "I'm here to say that the current land management practices are not fulfilling that promise."
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas accused the Republican majority on the committee of attempting to "betray" an inter-generational commitment to preservation and multi-use by "ceding authority over federal land" and waiving national environmental laws "to elevate timber production over all other uses."
"They aim to abandon federal oversight of public lands and allow private interest to determine the future of our national forests," Tsongas charged.
She also questioned the timing of the Congressional hearing.
"It is particularly troubling that we are considering these bills just two weeks after the end of the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon," Tsongas said. "At a time like this, we should be working together on bipartisan proposals."
Presidential campaign fodder
The issue of federal public lands and possible transfers to states also came up on the Republican presidential campaign trail this past week. Senator Ted Cruz aired a campaign ad in Nevada in which he said he would "fight day and night to return full control of Nevada's lands to its rightful owners, its citizens."
"You should be in charge of your own land," Cruz said while looking directly into the camera.
In the same ad, Cruz accused GOP frontrunner Donald Trump of wanting "to keep big government in charge."
During a speech in Las Vegas on Monday, Trump offered an unusual response for a politician running for president.
"I don't even know what the hell they're talking about," Trump told a large rally at a casino on the eve of the Nevada caucuses. "Something to do with... I am backing the federal government to keep the land that is currently owned by the federal government. And we should give that land to everybody and divvy it up or something. I'm saying to myself, 'Well, it is not a subject I know anything about.'"
Trump's elaboration came after he blasted the Texas senator. "This guy Cruz lies more than any human being I have ever dealt with."