In the last couple of months, members of Congress have begun pushing legislation that has many conservationists up in arms. The controversy started when Republicans changed one line in the rules for the House of Representatives and virtually eliminated the value of federal lands.
Federal lands can now be sold to states and private entities much more easily than had been possible. Some argue it could lead to abuses by private entities and a blow to an economy which benefits from recreation and work done on national lands.
Also under a spotlight is Bill 622, which is intended “to terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and to provide block grants to States for the enforcement of Federal law on Federal land under the jurisdiction of these agencies, and for other purposes.”
TU Professor of Biological Science Peggy Hill elaborated on some of the possible consequences of the Republicans’ moves.
In regards to Bill 622, she said, “Aside from the national parks, I think it would be even more difficult to enforce approved, even contract-limiting, land use by those leasing property, and perhaps even to lose control of areas not being leased by any private entities … sort of the spoils being reaped by those bold enough to just take them.”
She said an interesting topic in all this is “the lack of justification that local law enforcement of federal laws on federal lands would be more efficient than the current system. Would the proposed block grants be used to create an entire new class of state/local employee, or would states simply use them to supplement their contributions to agencies that are currently underfunded and unable to maintain the level of enforcement already assigned to them? In practice, we already see cooperation among government agencies that are federal, state, local or from tribal nations when they are needed. The concern that over-extended state enforcement officers would have to add to their duties an entirely new layer of federal laws and regulations with which they are less familiar seems justified with such an underdeveloped piece of legislation.”
She clarified that different states handle conservation and enforcement with varying degrees of success.
When asked if it was right to fear property development and energy development taking precedence over environmental protection, she responded, “I think that in Oklahoma there is justifiable concern for the environment and for private property rights. We have already seen how the state government is unable to act in the interests of citizens when those are even a minor threat to energy and agri-business corporations. People near disposal wells have been directed to pay for their own home repairs while those whose practices induced earthquakes, for example, have profited financially and with no defined responsibility to the property owners with damage claims. If the best interest of citizens is of less concern than the financial interests of corporations, then why would we hope that the best interests of public lands, or the environment more broadly, would take precedence over corporate interests?”
Hill mentioned that current events reminded her of James G. Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration and had previously been part of a “movement to increase individual economic freedom and private ownership of federal lands.” He was eventually replaced, but there were many anti-government actions that went unpunished in his time.
Hill clarified that it is too soon to know for sure what actions the current administration will see all the way through, but added that “based on all written and oral evidence, there is no concern for the environment, or any science-based policies. However, written and oral evidence appear to be subject to interpretation. The only ray of sunshine is that the president’s two adult sons are on record for wanting to protect public lands because they are avid hunters. Otherwise, all appearances suggest that the federal lands should be made to turn a profit if they hold reserves of resources that we can extract.”