A plan to transfer 270 million acres of federal land to the states is expensive and unfair, a Clinton administration official said Tuesday.
Bonnie Cohen, an assistant secretary at the Department of Interior, estimated the legislation would cost the nation more than $1.2 billion in lost energy and mineral leases, grazing and recreation fees and timber sales.
It also would “transfer revenues and resources owned by all Americans to a relatively small number of states,” she told a House Natural Resources subcommittee.
The bill would shift land maintained by the federal Bureau of Land Management to state control.
Supporters argued the federal government is overextended in the West.
“Land management decisions can be made better by folks in the state capitals than people in Washington, D.C.,” said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. “This is a question about fairness and who can do a better job of listening to the concerns of local people.”
Debate was split along party lines. Western Republicans, including Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth, strongly supported it. The relatively few Democrats in attendance were opposed.
The bill, introduced by Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, would let states assume full ownership of all BLM property within their borders. States would be free to manage the land as they see fit, selling it if they desire.
New Mexico Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley said the individual states could do a better job than the federal government.
“Not only will we manage the land; we’ll make more profit from it and give it back to the people.”
But because states would not be required to take over all lands, critics contend the BLM would be left with the least productive and least profitable land.
The BLM manages some 350,000 acres in Washington state, nearly 12 million acres in Idaho and more than 8 million acres in Montana. The lands are used for recreation, grazing, forestry, mining and fish and wildlife conservation.
In support of the bill, Rep. Wes Cooley, R-Ore., said the BLM costs taxpayers $120 million a year.
Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., countered that the agency returns some $600 million in revenues to the states. Instead of giving that money to the states, the BLM could make a considerable contribution to the federal coffers, he suggested.
Tuesday’s hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands marks the beginning of the bill’s journey through Congress.
No further action on the legislation is expected until Congress returns from its August recess.