On 11 July 2016, the TPM (Talking Points Memo) web site published an article reporting that a Republican committee had voted to recommend the inclusion of a plank in the party’s platform calling for federal lands to be returned to the states:
In a nail-biting vote, the committee tasked with writing the Republican Party’s 2016 platform voted to include language calling on Congress to return federal lands to the states immediately.
The amendment was so close that instead of being recorded by voice vote, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) asked members of the platform committee to stand to show their support.
Four days later, ThinkProgress ran that information under the alarmist headline of “GOP Platform Proposes to Get Rid of National Parks and National Forests.”
Are Republicans planning to make the abolition of national parks and national forests a policy goal? Probably not.
The platform language quoted by ThinkProgress mentioned only “certain federally controlled public lands”; it didn’t specify national parks and forests or reference “all federally controlled public lands”:
“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” reads the adopted language. “We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified.”
The term “public lands” encompasses much more than just national parks and national forests. The National Park Service only accounts for 12% of the land held by the federal government — agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, also oversee large areas of federally owned land. As used here, “federally controlled public lands” likely references some of the forests and/or rangelands (primarily in the Western United States) currently controlled by federal agencies — the latter of which became the subject of national controversy in 2014 when Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy engaged in a confrontation with federal authorities after the BLM moved to impound his cattle due to his non-payment of grazing fees.
ThinkProgress’ claim that the GOP is proposing to eliminate all national parks and forests and return them to the authority of individual states (an exceedingly unlikely possibility) is based on nothing more than that the language of the putative Republican plank mentions “certain” federally owned lands without detailing exactly which lands or class of lands it refers to:
The provision calls for an immediate full-scale disposal of “certain” public lands, without defining which lands it would apply to, leaving national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and national forests apparently up for grabs and vulnerable to development, privatization, or transfer to state ownership.
Yes, Republicans might again be eyeing the lesser prospect of returning some Western rangelands and wilderness areas to state control (which could in turn open them up to development or private sale), as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in their coverage of the issue (which actually quoted the party’s 2012 platform and not the proposed 2016 platform):
The 2016 platform would turn public lands back to private interest. In its own words:
“Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining or forestry through private ownership.
“Timber is a renewable natural resource, which provides jobs to thousands of Americans. All efforts should be made to make federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service available for harvesting. The enduring truth is that people best protect what they own.”
A reader who told us he was in the room of the Platform Committee when the provisions in question were proposed pointed us to a policy statement from the American Lands Council (an umbrella organization for 12 states working on this issue) that unequivocally stated they supported excluding national parks and federal wilderness areas from the lands under consideration for transfer to state control:
1. We urge the time and orderly transfer of federal public lands to willing states for local control that will provide better public access, better environmental health, and better economic productivity.
2. We support excluding existing national parks, Congressionally designated wilderness areas, Indian reservations, and military installations from the transfer.
3. We support equipping federal, state, and local agencies with resources necessary to plan for a successful transition to state-based ownership and management of the transferred public lands.
So perhaps Republicans (when their full platform is finally voted on and approved, which hasn’t happened yet) will advocate that some public lands in the West be opened to commercial endeavors, but that’s a far cry from calling for the U.S. government to cede control over all national parks and national forests and return ownership of them to the states. And, of course, stating a policy in a party platform is a long, long way from actually enacting that policy, especially when it would require Congressional approval.