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SOURCE: Yale e360

DATE: October 8, 2019

SNIP: In 2017, Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah lit the fuse of what many Republicans in Western states hoped would be a new effort to take over control of federal lands, and introduced a bill to sell some 3.3 million public land acres out of federal hands.

The backlash – this time from sportsmen and the outdoor recreation community, as well as environmentalists – was immediate and intense. Chaffetz soon withdrew the legislation.

The open effort in Congress to wrest public lands away from the federal government and transfer them to states or private owners may seem to have subsided. But it has simply gone underground. There is a stealth battle to whittle away at federal authority over public lands that is very much in motion, as the Trump administration aggressively advances an agenda to remake U.S. policies toward those lands.

“There’s a quiet, almost covert, effort to dismantle the public lands management infrastructure,” said Jim Lyons, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Interior Department in the Obama administration. “It’s very effective. I call it evil genius.”

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon coined the term “deconstruction of the administrative state,” to describe efforts to take power away from the federal government and allow business a freer hand in development. Nowhere is that policy being carried out more systematically than in the Trump administration’s actions on public lands, where the businesses seeking that freer hand are primarily the oil and gas extraction, logging, and mining industries.

There are hundreds of millions of acres of publicly owned lands across the West and Alaska, including National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Parks and National Monuments. They include some of the nation’s most iconic landscapes, and they are also critical to state and local economies. As a percentage of each Western state, federal ownership ranges from 29 percent of Montana to 79 percent of Nevada.

According to a study in the journal Science, the Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction of protected public lands in history. Three months after taking office, Trump issued an executive order that led to dramatic reductions in the size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears National Monument, shrunk by 85 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, shrunk by 51 percent.

In 2017, the Republican-led Congress voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development for the first time. Last month, the Interior Department announced its final plan for exploration and development in this pristine wilderness, keeping the department on track to auction leases for the rights to drill in the refuge’s coastal plan before the end of this year.

Under the Trump administration, issues thought long settled have been opened up again for rollback. The Obama administration, for example, had decided against renewing two expired leases owned by a Chilean mining company near the 365-square-mile Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota and ordered a study of possible impacts a proposed copper and nickel mine could have on the natural area with a eye toward imposing a 20-year ban. The Trump administration reinstated the leases last year and ended the study.

This summer, EPA administrators told staff that the agency would no longer oppose the Pebble Mine, in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a massive copper and gold mine that would, scientists had determined, likely have “significant and irreversible” effects on the salmon fishery in the bay.

President Trump’s vaunted wall along the U.S.-Mexico border will also impact large areas of public lands [NOTE: it already is]. One of the first places for construction of the 30-foot high barrier, part of Trump’s diversion of $3.6 billion in military construction projects, is in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona, federally protected as wilderness and designated an international biosphere reserve. All told the new border fence will be built along 175 miles of desert, and 44 of those miles will be built in federally protected areas. Environmentalists say the fence will block migratory species.

All along the border through New Mexico and Arizona are biologically diverse areas on public lands that depend on a connection between wildlands in the U.S. and Mexico. Endangered Mexican gray wolves in the two countries, for example, “have a low degree of genetic diversity and for them to survive, the two populations need to interbreed,” said Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “With a bollard wall, anything with a skull size of more than 4 inches can’t get through.” That means that deer, javelinas, wolves, and jaguars, which are known to enter the U.S. from Mexico, are blocked at the border.

The Trump administration is considering revisions to what is known as the Roadless Rule, a conservation initiative of the Clinton administration. Some 58 million acres of roadless land in the nation’s national forests, possibly eligible for wilderness designation someday, were protected from development under this rule so as not to spoil the wilderness qualities until a decision on long-term protection could be made. Included in that protection were 9.5 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, in southeastern Alaska, which is the nation’s largest national forest. But according to The Washington Post, Trump has instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to write new roadless rules that would eliminate the Clinton-era protections to allow logging, mining, and energy development.

Leasing of public lands for oil and gas is accelerating across the West. Companies are locking up tracts of federal land for 10 years while paying minimal fees. “We’re going to have repercussions about these decisions for decades to come,” said Jayson O’Neill, of the Western Values Project, a conservation nonprofit focused on public lands.

“The pace at which they are doing this is by design,” said Lyons. “Nobody can keep up.”