It’s seldom a submitted bill generates such resounding rancor and widespread opposition that its sponsor announces he’s withdrawing it in a Tweet posted to his Instagram page and linked to the hashtag campaign that crushed his proposal.
But that’s exactly what Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) did when he pulled HR 621 from the House docket on Feb. 2. That was only a week after introducing ’The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017,’ his proposal to sell 3.3 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in 10 states to “non-federal entities.”
“I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow,” Chaffetz wrote in his Feb. 1 concession tweet before tagging it with the coup d’grace: #KeepItPublic.
“To see him pull that bill and then use that hashtag — awesome,” said Meg Morris, Senior Online Engagement Coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), one of many conservation and environmental organizations that used the #KeepItPublic hashtag to rally a diverse array of outdoor enthusiasts and advocacy groups into launching an overwhelming social media blitz that flooded Congressional offices with angry calls and convinced Chaffetz to quickly abandon his bill.
“Public shaming is one of our only tools,” NWF Sportsmen’s Campaign Manager Aaron Kindle said. Chaffetz “knew 621 was not in the public’s best interests but he (submitted) it anyway. It took public shaming to stop him.”
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“Revel in this victory,” Back Country Hunters & Anglers (BCHA) President/CEO Land Tawney said. “Understand that it was we, The People, who won and that our democracy works. Take time to celebrate it. At the same time, stay vigilant. These attempts to sell our public lands will continue.”
Indeed, HR 621 is just one of many proposals circulating on Capitol Hill calling for the diminishment, or complete divesture, of federal control on all but 70 million of 640 million federally-managed acres, sprawled primarily across the West. Since 2013, at least 44 bills have been filed in Congress seeking to “dispose of” federal public lands or transfer them into state trusts.
The 115th Congress left little doubt that public lands divest-and-transfer would be on its legislative agenda when the House, on Jan. 3, the first day it convened, approved a rule change that declared any effort to dispose of public lands as “revenue neutral,” essentially making all federal public land worthless. With the rule change, public lands transfer to the states became a Congressional Republican priority supported by such groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), American Lands Council (ALC), Americans For Prosperity, Environmental Policy Alliance, Western Energy Alliance, Center for Organizational Research and Education and, by resolution, as many as 10 state legislatures.
Still in committee is HR 622, also sponsored by Chaffetz, which seeks to strip Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service agents of law-enforcement authority, as well as bills calling for the repeal of the 1906 Antiquities Act, for dilution of the Endangered Species Act, for undesignating 29 national monuments created by the Obama Administration and for revoking the BLM’s revised land-use Planning 2.0 rules.
But Chaffetz’s decision to yank HR 621 in a backlash of rebuke not only brought divesture momentum to a screeching halt, it has forced transfer proponents to realize they have not effectively presented the benefits of their proposals well enough to overcome opponents’ pervasive and persistent messaging campaign that has convinced much of the general public that transferring federal land to the states is a “land grab” on behalf of industries seeking to more easily and less expensively exploit natural resources.
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“We are talking about the vast expanse of vacant land as opposed to national parks,” ALEC Director of International Relations and Federalism Karla Jones said. The allegation that “making money off the land” is their only emphasis is inaccurate but, she added, “There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s already an important component of the federal multiple-use mandate, only the states could do this better than the feds.”
“Because we are not well-funded, we have an uphill battle in getting our message out,” ALC CEO Jennifer Fielder, a Montana State Senator, said. Well-financed opponents such as Sierra Club and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) have used “deception and distortion” to confuse people about the proposals.
“Our philosophy is to simply tell the truth: We have some real problems with the way public lands are managed,” Fielder said. “When people have an opportunity to look at the merits of the proposal, they learn that it is not so big and bad and scary, and it’s actually a great idea to put decisions in the hands of those most affected.”
Transfer supporters aim to counter the “land grab” allegation through educational campaigns featuring “white papers,” reports, blogs and articles, staging informational conferences, reaching out to outdoors groups through their own social media channels. They are particularly interested in convincing Eastern taxpayers that they are not receiving value in paying for maintenance of millions of acres of “vacant land” on the other side of the country.
ALEC, a Washington, D.C., free-market nonprofit that frequently drafts model federal legislation for conservative causes, has crafted cookie-cutter bills based on Utah’s seminal 2012 Land Transfer Act for at least seven other Western state legislatures demanding control of federal land within their boundaries.
Jones said ALEC has published white papers and reports on its website, such as her article ‘Bureaucratic Intransigence Hinders Montana’s Ability to Fight Wildfires,’ documenting the problems with federal policies and how states could do a better job managing public lands in a way that generates revenues, creates jobs, protects the environment and wildlife habitat while ensuring public access.
Jones said ALEC supports transferring federal public land to states similar to the way Canada ceded federal, or “crown lands,” to its Yukon Territory in 2003, North West Territory in 2014, and plans to do so in its Nunavut Territory within a few years. She discussed the process, “devolution,” during a February hearing before the Federal Lands Action Group.
ALEC will be hosting an “academy” in New Mexico this spring to bring Congressional representatives from across the country together with state and local lawmakers to discuss tactics and strategies in pushing the transfer agenda, Jones said.
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Founded in 2012, the ALC — which has about 1,000 dues-paying elected officials as members — “is a very grassroots organization that began with county commissioners and grew to include state legislators, governors and lieutenant governors, and members of Congress,” she said.
Like ALEC, Fielder said the ALC regards itself as a clearinghouse for papers and documents written, researched and collected by members. “We basically share information,” she said. “We don’t have an organized public relations firm that is working for us. We educate ourselves and others why reforms are needed.”
ALEC, the ALC and other transfer supporters all use social media messaging and marketing to amplify their advocacy, but also emphasize more traditional, less formal communication.
The ALC “is working hard to let people know what we are about through the website, Twitter, Facebook, and it’s very informal; people are posting things all the time,” Fielder said. “But it’s primarily word-of-mouth, face-to-face and finding ways to tell our story and generate a fact-based discussion. We want to make sure everybody is well-informed.”
The ALC’s website features a petition drive soliciting signatures in support of transferring federal public lands “to willing western states to improve public access, enhance environmental health and restore economic productivity through local control.” It had 3,496 signatures on Feb. 17.
Former ALC lobbyist Michael Swenson, who now represents the Nevada Land Council, said transfer opponents need to establish trust with opponents — especially outdoorsmen, the “hook and bullet crowd” — to assure them that states would be good environmental stewards of public lands.
“Let’s make these decisions at the local level if you really care about the environment,” he said. “Let’s sit down and craft language that is comfortable to all of us.”
“We need to establish that dialogue with environmentalist, conservation groups in the West,” Jones agreed, but added it is also “paramount” to educate Eastern urbanites “who have no idea” what the effort is attempting to accomplish.
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When trying to explain what it’s like living in Western states where much of the land around you is managed by Congress and federal officials more than 1,000 miles away, Fielder equates it to a subway system in a city. “If we had Western representatives in charge of that,” she said, “it may not be a high priority to them to make sure the system is well-managed.”
The pressure from, literally, hundreds of organizations across the nation to thwart transfer proposals under the #KeepItPublic banner – which garnered more than 1.6 million impressions between Feb. 14 and Feb.16 alone, according to KeyHole Hashtag Tracking service – as well as others such as #PublicLandsProud, with 140,000 ‘Likes,’ is clearly well-oiled and orchestrated, despite no real centralized coordination.
“We’re beating the drum with it and making sure we do it every day,” NWF’s Morris said of the #KeepItPublic tag, which she said surfaced in 2014 at Sportsmen’s Rallies in statehouses across the West. “We made it our chant. Now I see it on t-shirts. Having worked on this campaign for so long, it was rewarding to see it become so popular.”
The tag is used on NWF video stories and documentaries that show the public lands and wildlife that opponents say would be imperiled if federal lands were transferred to state control, as well as in “Twitter storms,” at rallies and while “live-Tweeting” from state and federal hearings, she said. NWF also has a #KeepItPublic news page on its website.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), which represents more than 50 conservation organizations, 55,000 individual advocates and 1,400 affiliated local- and state-level clubs, established SportsmensAccess.org in 2016 “as a hub for resources” in battling transfer proposals, said Kristyn Brady, TRCP Director of Communications. The organization has also created a #Publiclandsproud campaign that features a photo contest that encourages the public to post and tag photos “showcasing the value of public lands,” she said.
Also on TRCP’s SportsmensAccess.org page is a petition opposing transfer proposals that has shared on websites and Facebook pages by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), Outdoor Alliance, Back Country Hunters and Anglers (BCHA), Simms, Trout Unlimited, Quail Forever, Sitka, Old Milwaukee, the NWF, Kimber, TRCP, Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation, Remington, Powderhook, Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, among many others. Signing the petition online automatically sends a letter to signers’ local congressional representative. As of Feb. 16, it had more than 50,000 signatures.
According to the Outdoor Alliance, more than 4,000 of its members wrote letters to lawmakers and up to 20,000 people shared its ‘Tell Congress Not To Give Away Our Public Lands’ letter.
The nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization with more than 2 million members, Sierra Club places paid ads in magazines and newspapers, films documentaries and publishes numerous books, reports, blogs and story-telling articles through social media and on its website lobbying against transfer proposals, including excerpts from ‘Tools for Grassroots Activists’ for its ‘This Is What Winning The West Looks Like’ series, said Adam Beitman, Sierra Club’s deputy secretary for federal policy.
Even without concerted effort by advocacy groups, claims that states can afford to manage lands now under federal jurisdiction without being compelled to sell them are challenged by frequent articles in newspapers across the West documenting how they’re doing just that, including Oregon’s recent decision to sell its oldest forest, the 82,500-acre Elliott State Forest, because of declining timber revenues. Similar sales and auctions in Nevada, Idaho, Colorado and Utah have been reported in the last year.
The news stories provide a powerful testimony, Beitman said, because once public land is sold to a private buyer, “it’s gone forever.”
Every campaign needs something to “make the lightbulb go off,” he said. For him, it’s the Grand Canyon. “Everyone knows the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon was protected by the Antiquities Act,” Beitman said, noting when President Theodore Roosevelt preserved what is now Grand Canyon National Park, it was widely derided as wasteful extravagance and federal overreach. “If it hadn’t been for Teddy Roosevelt doing something right, you wouldn’t have the Grand Canyon today. That is where the lightbulb goes off for people” when explaining why federal public land must remain under federal tutelage.
BCHA Communications Director Katie McKalip said among ways her organization lobbies against transfer proposals is by staging press conferences. On Feb. 8, the BCHA and Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) representatives met in a televised conference to discuss what would happen on public lands if Chaffetz’s HR 622 was adopted and the BLM and Forest Service were stripped of law-enforcement authority.
It’s an effective tactic, McKalip said. “Let’s go to the people who can speak to the subject. How would it affect public lands? Give law enforcement officials a voice” in the discussion, she said. Bottom line: Eliminating about 1,000 rangers, investigators and law enforcement agents who now patrol the backcountry with local sheriff’s deputies and state game wardens would present an array of risks.
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“Public lands are not just a walk in the park,” McKalip said, noting the BCHA’s 10,000 members are their own best advocates. “These are people who enjoy the challenge of going into the wilderness to fend for themselves. They are loud and they are outspoken and don’t hold back. This reflects their attitude for what’s at stake. This is not just a side hobby they are willing to compromise on. There will be no compromise.”
And then, there’s the biggest, yet most intangible, tool in the box: Reminding Americans that this land is their land. “There’s always been this symbolic, uniquely American realization that you own 640 million acres to get lost in, to just take off and go,” NWF’s Kindle said. “Without access, a big part of our American way of life would be diminished. The most basic expression of American pride and patriotism is the sense that these are out lands and we are going to protect them.”
One battle won, but the war has just begun. “I need a spread sheet” to keep track of all the proposed transfer bills in Congress and statehouses, NWF’s Morris said. Transfer proposals “are getting trickier. I think they are trying to make them boring on purpose. It’s really hard to get people worked up over ‘oversight.’”
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