Public Land Policy (12-15-06)

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Public land is federal, state, county or municipal space that belongs to U.S. citizens. It provides open space, clean water, habitat for plants and animals and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Public land exchanges include any transactions that transfer publicly owned land from one owner to another. It could involve trading public land for private land, or exchanging jurisdiction over land between different agencies. Public land exchanges often involve mining or fossil fuel rights and may include a financial payment to compensate for trade value.

Recent Action

The Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006, S.3636, and its related House bill H.R. 5769, and the White Pine County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act of 2006, S. 3772, have caused recent controversy. These bills designate wilderness areas in exchange for the sale of federal lands to private developers.

The Washington County land bill has faced the greatest opposition from members of Congress. Introduced by Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) and Representative Jim Matheson (D-UT), this legislation would sell off 25,000 acres to private developers in Washington County, UT, the fifth-fastest growing county in the nation, while preserving 220,000 acres, over half of which are already designated as wilderness area. Some Washington County citizens deem the sale necessary to accommodate the rapidly escalating population. However, conservationists see the sale as an extremely harmful action, which will only threaten various endangered species that live in the area with more development in an already overpopulated area.

The White Pine County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act of 2006, introduced by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Ensign (R-NV), similarly trades the sale of 45,000 acres of federally-owned land for the designation of 545,000 acres to 13 wilderness areas in White Pine County. The Nevada acreage occurs in one of the most sparsely populated counties in the nation. Therefore, conservationists are less concerned that the land sale will result in immediate development. Furthermore, the area up for sale has been assessed by various stakeholders, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, and has been designated as an appropriate choice to divest.

A series of hearings on the two bills took place, but neither was passed during the 109th Congress. To read a summary of the most recent hearing held on November 30, 2006 on the land bills, click here. (12/15/06)

Previous Action

 

Background

The U.S. government, including city, county, state and federal government, manage all public lands. Those held in trust by the federal government for American citizens are managed by various federal agencies. Most are managed by the Secretary of the Interior through the National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service others are managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the U.S. Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Park Service manages all National Parks and Monuments.

Congress is generally responsible for the creation of new public lands, although the Executive branch may create or protect National Monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Western states manage trust lands for grazing and mining purposes which generate revenue for public schools. Most western public lands are leased for cattle or sheep grazing, including National Forest, BLM land and Wildlife Refuges. National Parks are exempt from leasing. Environmentalists often argue that such leasing goes against the theory of public lands.

Wilderness designation of a public land denotes the completely undeveloped nature of a particular area. It may be managed by any of the above agencies and operates under its own set of laws and rules for its general purpose.

Generally state and federally managed public lands are open for recreational use ranging from unrestricted activity in undeveloped areas to highly regulated activity in developed areas. Each area is managed to promote a specific habitat. Recreation may include bird watching, hiking or hunting and is subject to temporary restriction due to the needs of the habitat.

Sources: Hearing testimony, NYTimes, Nevada Wilderness Coalition NEWS, The Salt Lake Tribune and Land Trust Alliance.

Contributed by Rachel Bleshman, 2006 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on December 15, 2006.