A rule change the U.S. House recently passed removes a major roadblock in the process of transferring federal land to states, local communities or, potentially, private developers.
The provision was tucked into a 43-page package of rule changes, the most controversial of which would have gutted the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The ethics proposal was scrapped after intense pushback from the public.
Some Republicans have signaled they would like to make other changes in the nation’s approach to public lands.
Vermont has nearly half a million acres of federal land, the vast majority of it in the Green Mountain National Forest. In total, roughly 8 percent of land in Vermont is managed by the federal government.
Rep. Paul Grijalva, D-N.M., who is the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the new land rule “outrageous and absurd” in a statement after it was passed.
“Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people,” Grijalva said.
Previously Congress had to calculate and account for any revenue decreases from ceding federal land to a state or community. Many parcels generate federal revenue through means such as energy extraction, tourism and logging.
The new rule eliminates that formula, instead mandating that such transfers “shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.”
Senate approval of the rule changes isn’t required, because the House has the “power of the purse” and the rules address taxing and spending policy.
Vermont’s federal lands
The U.S. government currently manages more than 600 million acres throughout the country, the majority of it in western states and Alaska, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Vermont’s federal lands remain one of the biggest drivers of tourism in the state, with 3 million to 4 million visitors a year flocking to the Green Mountain National Forest alone.
The Outdoor Industry Association has found that outdoor recreation supports 34,000 jobs in the state, generates $176 million in annual state tax revenue and produces $2.5 billion annually in retail sales and services across Vermont.
It’s unclear if the new federal land rule portends major changes to policy, though the 2016 Republican Party platform calls for a comprehensive review of potential land transfers.
“We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands,” the platform reads.
Republican House members have introduced federal land transfer legislation in recent congressional sessions, but it has not gained much traction. Rep. Don Young, R-Ark., introduced a bill last session that proposed to allow the transfer of millions of acres of federal land in all 50 states.
Republicans argue that when states control land it makes management more responsive to the concerns of the community. Democrats contend that many states don’t have the resources to manage such large parcels and that important public lands could be sold off to private developers if states are unable to take on the extra burden.
Michael Fraysier, the lands administration director for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, said he imagined the new rule was drafted chiefly for potential transfers in the West. But he added that any congressional action aimed at transferring federal land in Vermont to state hands would be unwelcome.
“We don’t have the capacity to take on a large new ownership of federal land,” Fraysier said. “Those parcels have a lot of public expectations for recreation and wildlife and timber management.”
Fraysier said that while the federal government may be looking to cede more land to states, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is undergoing a contradictory mission: conveying state lands to federal ownership.
“Management capacity is becoming a real issue for us, and today we turn down donations of land,” Fraysier said. “They might be great parcels to be in state ownership, but they often come with a lot of expectations and management costs that we aren’t equipped to deal with. We are now asking for endowments to help supplement management costs.”
Ethan Ready, a spokesperson for the Green Mountain National Forest, said President Donald Trump’s White House has yet to make clear its position on federal land transfers.
“It’s important to understand that the Green Mountain National Forest has no specific changes in policy direction at this time,” Ready said. “But obviously we are in an administrative transition, and a lot more will unfold in the coming weeks and months.”
Ready said timber sales generate roughly $500,000 in revenue every year, not nearly enough to support essential services to keep the forest operational. He said the national forest receives roughly $6 million in federal money annually to subsidize operational costs.
Even if Vermont doesn’t see a change in ownership of its federal lands, it may face other pressures from the Republican-controlled executive and legislative branches.
A 2016 report from the Center for American Progress identified a recent trend of legislation from what it termed the “congressional anti-parks caucus.” While federal land protections once received bipartisan support, today roughly two dozen conservative House and Senate members are driving efforts to undercut protections.
House Republicans have, in the past, proposed major cuts to programs on national lands.
Their fiscal year 2016 proposal, for example, included $2 billion in cuts to national park and forest programs, which would have, among other things, delayed hundreds of rehabilitation and construction projects throughout the country.
The GOP is also looking to scale back the Endangered Species Act. The 1973 law has helped establish federal wildlife refuges to protect endangered plants and animals. Vermont hosts a handful of plant and animal species that could lose federal protections from any weakening of the law, including the Canada lynx.
Republicans say the law has been misused to block economic development.
The impact of Trump’s nominees
Three federal agencies oversee the majority of federal land in Vermont.
The U.S. Forest Service — a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — oversees the Green Mountain National Forest.
The National Park Service — part of the Department of the Interior — manages the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock as well as Vermont’s section of the Appalachian Trail.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — another wing of Interior — is in charge of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, a 36,000 acre parcel that spans multiple states and protects parts of the 7.2 million acre Connecticut River watershed. U.S. Fish and Wildlife also has jurisdiction over the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Swanton.
Trump nominees to run the federal agencies that oversee these lands have mixed environmental records, but they have expressed support for land conservation in the past. Still, agency heads will be bound to enforce any legislation coming out of Congress.
Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is Trump’s pick to run the USDA, which oversees the Green Mountain National Forest.
Perdue has expressed skepticism that climate change is real, while also supporting the preservation of state lands and waterways. Perdue has not offered a vision for overseeing federal lands. That could come during his Senate confirmation hearings, which have yet to be scheduled.
Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, of Montana, is Trump’s pick to run the Interior Department. In his confirmation hearing, Zinke told legislators that President Teddy Roosevelt “had it right” when he protected 150 million acres of public land during his tenure.
During Zinke’s hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., grilled him on various environmental issues, including Trump’s pronouncements doubting climate change.
Zinke said humans play a role in climate change, but he added there is “a whole lot of debate on both sides of the aisle” as to what the exact influence has been.
Sanders quickly interrupted, saying, “Actually there is not a whole lot of debate. The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems.”
After further nudging by Sanders, Zinke said, “I do not believe it is a hoax.”
Sanders then asked if he believed fossil fuel extraction should occur on federal lands. Zinke responded that he believes all sorts of energy should be developed on national lands, including fossil fuels as well as solar and wind power.
Vermont already has the first site chosen for a wind energy development on U.S. federal lands — the Deerfield Wind project, which is being built in the Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont.
In his hearing, Zinke also expressed support for making permanent the Land and Water Conservation Fund. There have been recent attempts to eliminate the fund, which has brought in a total of $123 million to support conservation efforts for the Green Mountain National Forest, the Conte refuge and the Appalachian Trail.
Sanders’ last question regarded the transfer of federal lands to other entities. While Zinke, if confirmed, could not block any congressional action ceding public lands, he told Sanders, “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land. I can’t be any more clear.”
“Good,” Sanders said. “That’s a clear answer.”
Correction: The acreage of the Silvio O. Conte wildlife refuge has been corrected.