Full of worms: APPLE is the definition of a “land grab”

Starting hearings with historical tidbits is a hobby of former history teacher Rep. Rob Bishop. Often, it’s charming. But in this morning’s hearing on his own APPLE bill, which allows Western states to seize federal lands to fund schools, it proved also to be illuminating.

Apparently, Bishop’s H.R. 2852 takes cues from the murderous, tyrannical King Henry VIII.

“Henry the VIII took holdings of the Catholic Church and gave it to the aristocracy on the condition that they maintain the schools established by the church,” Bishop said in defense of his bill in his opening statement.

And “took” is clearly the operative word. Henry VIII confiscated assets, gave them to his friends, and did so, in Mr. Bishop’s reading of history, for the schoolchildren. For a guy with six wives—four with heads—it was par for the course. For modern school policy? Let’s do better.

The APPLE bill allows states to “claim” five percent of the “unallocated” federal lands in their jurisdiction to increase the tax base for schools. Unallocated means anything not already designated a national park, wilderness, wilderness study area, national monument, etc.—any BLM or Forest Service land not in protected status, which, in Utah, is most of it. Saturday is National Public Lands Day—a great opportunity to head out to enjoy a hike or a picnic on your federal lands, and look around at where you are. It’s likely most of your weekend enjoyment will be brought to you by such “unallocated” lands.

At a time when all eyes are on the federal deficit, the APPLE bill takes somewhere between 24 and 30 million acres and billions of dollars of federal assets and—poof!— simply gives them away. Harris Sherman, undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, testified against the bill this morning, saying it would polarize stakeholders, transfer national assets to states and counties, diminish multiple uses and recreation and “complicate rather than improve the federal deficit problem.”

Bishop claims this is necessary because the U.S. promised Utah at statehood that the federal land would be eventually sold. That’s both a misinterpretation of Utah’s founding documents, and a tired old talking point—especially for a history buff.

David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society testified that by that logic, “…any Member of Congress from the State of Utah who sponsors this legislation is breaking Utah’s ‘solemn compact’ with the United States of America…because Utah’s enabling statute states that, ‘… the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof…’”

Forever’s a long time. We’re not there yet.

Fortunately, there are proven ways to improve the straits for our schools. But because federal lands are not the problem, giving away federal lands is not the answer. As this excellent letter to the editor pointed out, one of the best means of gaining revenue from the State lands already set aside to fund schools in Utah (which comprise over 10 percent of Utah’s land base) is to consolidate them through land swaps, furthering both conservation and development.

Combining the diaspora of state lands that languish in remote, hard to access places would gain thousands of acres of developable land for the state, thousands of acres of wild land for future Americans to enjoy and thousands of dollars of new revenue for Utah’s school kids. I may be a K-through-college product of Utah schools, but that’s what I call smart thinking.