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COLUMN: Require Common Sense and Accountability for Public Lands

January 30, 2017
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

As Washingtonians, all we have to do to enjoy some of the most beautiful natural scenery anywhere is to look out the window or take a short drive to one of our spectacular National Parks or Forests. We treasure our access to public lands, but we also demand accountability and transparency for the way those lands are managed. We keep in mind the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, who once said, “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” The key is to use common sense to strike a balance.

Local communities bear the lion’s share of the impact of land-use decisions. Those communities must have a say in how lands are maintained and managed and in some cases it is appropriate to transfer some parcels of those lands to state or local governments. Land transfers should take place only in response to local input and for local benefit, and it is necessary to strike a balance to streamline federal land management and advance conservation goals by prioritizing maintenance of lands that are actually used for recreation, rather than those that are underutilized or inaccessible for recreation.

One example of a land transfer that benefits the local community is the 34 miles of the McNary Shoreline in the Tri-Cities. The land is federally-owned, but it is underutilized and is no longer needed for federal flood control purposes. This land is worth much more to the surrounding communities, who already pay nearly $1 million annually to perform much of the upkeep and maintenance of this federal property. There is substantial backing for a transfer, so the local community can have more of a voice over decisions of public access on these lands. However, any transfer would show as a loss to assets to the federal government, since current procedural rules do not account for the financial contributions of local communities to maintain public access. Where there is strong local support, there should be fewer barriers for a transfer between the federal government and the community.

In the House of Representatives, a recently adopted rules package corrected the process for ‘government-to-government’ land transfers to help focus limited federal resources on maintaining and enhancing nationally significant federal lands. Nothing in this rule encourages wholesale transfers of treasured national lands. The rule change simply takes the budgetary guesswork out of non-controversial land transfers, which would proceed through House consideration without unnecessary procedural delays. They would still be required to clear the same hurdles as every other bill in order to be adopted: majority support in committee and on the House floor.

The federal government is the largest landowner in the U.S., managing more than 640 million acres nationwide. Most of that land is in the West, our home, and this land is susceptible to changing federal policies that can restrict access and limit opportunities for Americans to enjoy their public lands. While the federal government should have a prominent role in responsible land stewardship, this authority must not be abused, and I often hear from constituents concerned by federal land-management practices and the misuse of conservation laws to restrict access or activities.

I am strong supporter of ensuring that local voices are heard in federal land management decisions. Non-controversial land transfers that are supported by the local community should be able to move forward in a timely manner. Congress should focus on promoting commonsense conservation policies that protect and preserve our public lands, parks, and forests.