WASHINGTON — Perhaps it was lingering outrage from the election. Or it could have been the explicit language of the bill, which called for the “disposal” of millions of acres of “excess” federal lands.
Whatever the driving force, the backlash to legislation from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) that would have sold off 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 Western states was swift and fierce. Outrage erupted on Facebook and Twitter, advocacy groups urged supporters to bombard their congressional representatives’ phone lines, and a petition opposing the sale or transfer of public lands drew tens of thousands of signatures.
“The first takeaway is that the squeaky wheel still gets the grease,” said Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a Montana-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting public lands and preserving America’s tradition of hunting and fishing.
That Chaffetz could be swayed on this issue is notable. The chair of the House Oversight Committee has shown little backbone in his dealings with the Trump administration, opting not to pursue an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia. Nor has he seemed to care much about what his voters think, claiming that paid, out-of-state protesters had infiltrated the crowd of angry constituents at a February town hall.
It was hunting and fishing advocates, however, who finally managed to get to Chaffetz. But Tawney and other public land advocates who rallied against his measure recognize that while they won this fight, the war is far from over. And they are prepared to stand firmly against what they view as a threat to national heritage.
For Tawny, a fifth-generation Montanan, access to land is as important as the guns he hunts with in the field. “This issue is our second Second Amendment,” Tawney said. “Any attack on public lands is a non-starter for us.”
The political battle over federal lands is nothing new. But with President Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, the GOP has a golden opportunity to make its move. On day one of this Congress, Republicans approved a rules change making it easier to sell off large swaths of the more than 640 million acres of land the federal government owns, including national parks. The change fits snugly into the party’s 2016 platform, which called for transferring control of federal lands to states and opening public lands for increased oil and mineral production.
Then came Chaffetz’s unambiguous bill to sell off several million acres of land he said had “been deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers.”
Chaffetz had introduced the measure every year since 2010, but this time was different ― he had a unified Republican government and a clear party platform to back him up.
The introduction on Jan. 24 provoked outrage from conservationists, hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts, who have labeled Chaffetz an “anti-public lands congressman.”
Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society, compared the bill to “driving a locomotive over the American people and our wild natural heritage.”
In a Facebook Live video on Jan. 27, titled “Call to Arms #publiclandowner,” Tawney urged anyone and everyone who cares about public lands to “show up in spades and fight” against Chaffetz, to call their own representatives and to recruit others. He also offered a warning for the Utah legislator.
“You’ve kicked a hornet’s nest and the army is amassing,” Tawney said in the video. “And I will put my money on the people every single time.”
It wasn’t just in Utah, either. On Jan. 30, more than 1,000 people turned out for a pro-public lands rally in Helena, Montana. Two days later, hundreds of demonstrators — Republicans and Democrats — converged on the state capitol in New Mexico.
Kayje Booker, state policy director for the Montana Wilderness Association, told HuffPost that the turnout at their rally was double what organizers were expecting. And while the Chaffetz bill was among the talking points, the rally’s main purpose was to demonstrate the level of bipartisan support for public lands protection.
“At no point were we like, ‘We’ll have a rally and Chaffetz will pull his bill,’” she laughed.
But on Feb. 2, the congressman did just that. In an Instagram post including a photo of Chaffetz dressed in hunting camouflage, he noted that he is a “proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands.” While defending the bill’s land sales, he acknowledged that “groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message.”
“I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow,” he wrote.
It’s not clear whether it was one specific group or the collective outcry that pushed Chaffetz to have a change of heart. But the bill and its subsequent death appear to have given advocates new energy.
In an interview with the Outdoor Industry Association, Tania Lown-Hecht, communications director for Outdoor Alliance, another public lands advocacy nonprofit, said the success in defeating Chaffetz’s bill is “a great bellwether.”
“It tells us that people are paying good attention to policy right now and they are not afraid to share their voices, often loudly and passionately,” she said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who slammed Chaffetz in a statement on Feb. 1, told HuffPost that Chaffetz’s decision to withdraw the measure just nine days after introducing it came as a shock — a welcome one. What was not surprising, he said, was the public’s volatile reaction to the measure.
“A lot of people who maybe didn’t take this threat very seriously in the past suddenly woke up and went, ‘Wow, my national forests that I hunt, jog, camp on — that could go away,’” Heinrich told HuffPost. “I don’t care whether you’re an independent, a Democrat or a Republican, if you live in the West, chances are that’s a big part of your life.”
Brad Brooks, the Idaho deputy regional director of The Wilderness Society, echoed that sentiment. People from all walks of life, and from both sides of the aisle, had a visceral reaction to the “bold,” “in-your-face” language, he told HuffPost. And the bill, he said, became a kind of “unifying rallying cry” for protecting public lands.
Advocacy groups are now reflecting on their win and turning their focus to other proposals. It’s unlikely Republicans will stop writing bills to sell or transfer federal lands, although they may opt for less brazen, more subtle language in the future.
Topping advocacy groups’ current list of targets is HR 622, another Chaffetz measure, which seeks to “terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management” and hand over authority to local departments.
Heinrich described that proposed bill as “a gift to poachers and drug runners.”
Chaffetz’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Booker said conservationists now face a new opportunity and challenge: maintaining the current level of engagement and enthusiasm. “The energy is there, the momentum is there,” she told HuffPost. “But then how do you harness that for a series of actions?”
Sportsmen are also ready to hold lawmakers accountable, Tawney said.
“I don’t think they’ll be fatigued with this issue,” he said.
Brooks stressed the importance of remaining vigilant to prevent the privatization of some of America’s most cherished protected areas: “I think that people know we’re not messing around anymore when it comes to anti-public lands bills in Congress.”