Last week Rep. Jason Chaffetz made a play at solving America’s deficit woes. He decided to have a literal yard sale and auction off the open space right in the back yards of thousands of Westerners.
The “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2011,” or H.R. 1126, would force the Bureau of Land Management to sell 3.3 million acres of federal lands throughout 10 Western states, with all the money going to the treasury, instead of to conservation as it currently does when federal lands are sold. The inspiration for the bill came from a 14-year-old report that identified so-called “excess lands” managed by the BLM. But even at the time, the report cautioned that selling the land would be accompanied by conflicts, including the presence of cultural resources, endangered species habitats, wetlands, and adjacent landowners opposing the sale.
As a result, in a hearing this week the BLM testified that it was “strongly opposed” to the bill’s passage, and the Salt Lake Tribune called the moth-balled report on which it was based “a lousy place to start” when deciding which federal lands to trim.
It is a lousy place to start, and a lousy time. With the current low prices in real estate from the market’s saturation, the treasury would get a bad return on any sales it made at deflated prices, and local landowners would find their own land values further depressed by the weight of new land on the supply side. Selling these lands would make hardly a dent in the deficit, but would leave an enduring mark on taken-for-granted open spaces in communities across the West.
There is already a mechanism for selling federal land—it is called the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, and it authorizes the BLM to explore which parcels make sense to give up, and to sell them accordingly. Careful consideration and individual review is the way forward, not a desperate fire sale. Members of Congress should support the reauthorization of FLTFA in order to ensure that any sale of federal lands occurs as part of a judicious and responsible process.