Chaffetz land sell-off takes real estate speculation to “excess” heights

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee hosted a hearing for eight bills today. Seven would designate or adjust wilderness in states from New Mexico to Michigan. One would legislate the forced sale of 3.3 million acres of federal land across 10 western states.

As Cookie Monster would observe, “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

The glaring discrepancy in what otherwise would have been the first true wilderness hearing of the 112th Congress was H.R. 1126, Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s brainchild for bridging the government’s deficit woes. Under the “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2011” Congress would force the Bureau of Land Management to sell 3.3 million acres of federal lands and kick the money back to the treasury. The “excess lands” in the bill are those listed in an outdated 1997 report, that, even at the time, noted sell-off would come with inherent conflicts for the BLM, including the presence of cultural resources, endangered species habitats, wetlands, and adjacent landowners opposing the sale. (Unfortunately, the bill is not accompanied by a map of exactly which lands we’re talking about–one of its many red flags.)

Michael Pool, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management testified that selling the land “would be costly, harmful to local economies and communities and undermine important resource values. It would also be unlikely to generate significant revenues to the U.S. treasury.” Instead, he suggested that Congress reauthorize the Federal Lands Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA), which provides a mechanism for the BLM and other agencies to sell appropriate lands, calling that program “invaluable.”

Mark Ward, a policy analyst for the Utah Association of Counties, countered that the “looming fiscal collapse” of the government necessitated the sale of the lands, but confessed he was “not familiar” with FLTFA, the program under which these lands have routinely been sold.

Unlike Chaffetz’s proposal, FLTFA uses revenues from land sales for BLM conservation programs that acquire inholdings in existing BLM lands, streamlining and simplifying management for the agency. FLTFA also provides a mechanism to fund the personnel who oversee the program. Under Chaffetz’s bill, personnel would have to be taken away from their other BLM responsibilities to work on the land sale. Pool testified that since the 1997 report, 1.7 million acres of BLM land has been sold under the program, but unfortunately, it not been reauthorized in this Congress.

Meanwhile, in an economy in which real estate values are low and the market is saturated, it behooves neither the treasury, which would get a bad value for its land equity, nor local landowners, who would find real estate values further depressed by a flood of additional land and lose open space taken for granted for generations, to enter into this fool’s bargain.

Finally, there is the overreaching scope of the bill—3.3 million acres sold in 10 states. Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings praised the fact that the wilderness bills before the committee were all sponsored by representatives of the districts in which they would be enacted.

“There is a near zero percent chance that the Committee will act on or advance bills that seek to designate wilderness in a district or state that a Member isn’t elected to represent. I have often said that I respect the knowledge and prerogative of a Member on proposals that affect their district, as they were elected to represent that district and know it best,” Hastings said.

One would hope on a bill that seeks to sell lands in nine states and plenty of districts Rep. Chaffetz was not elected to represent, Rep. Hastings would hold the committee to the same standard. Or maybe one of these things really isn’t like the others.