When Sen. John Walsh announced last week that he'd introduced legislation to hobble Congress's ability to sell off federally managed public lands, we had to shake our heads a bit. Don't misunderstand, we're in total agreement with his position that such land transfers are "a terrible idea." It just seems ridiculous that this battle has finally established a front on the Senate floor.
Walsh's bill came in answer to Rep. Paul Ryan's successful revival of a resolution—tucked into the U.S. House budget passed in April—to explore "selling unneeded acreage in the open market" as a potential cost saving measure. Conservation groups like the Wilderness Society have railed against such language in past Ryan budget proposals, but the threat never really necessitated a strong legislative response until now. At least, not at the national level.
This conservative-fueled effort has managed to gain traction lower down the political ladder. Dozens of county governments across the West have signed on with the American Lands Council, the nonprofit pushing for the fed to transfer public lands to state control. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert famously signed such a demand into law in March 2012, after the proposal—sponsored by ALC founder Rep. Ken Ivory—sailed through the state's legislature.
The Montana Republican Party appears to be the latest collective to drink Ivory's Kool-Aid. At the GOP's annual convention last month, party members officially adopted a resolution "supporting granting federally managed public lands to the states." The document cited, among other things, the passage last year in the Montana Legislature of a resolution that proclaimed federal funding and adequate management of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands "in serious jeopardy."
One point that might help underscore the nuttiness of this thinking: It's been pitched to Congress before ... by President George W. Bush. Critics fought it then and they'll fight it now, but from a Montana perspective at least, this seems like more distraction than debate. A poll conducted earlier this year by Colorado College revealed that 78 percent of those surveyed in the state opposed the concept of selling public lands to reduce the deficit. The new legislation will likely give Walsh some campaign ammunition, given that his Republican opponent, Rep. Steve Daines, voted in favor of the Ryan budget. It just seems too bad he had to waste any time on it at all.