Proposed federal legislation requiring acceleration of the transfer of BLM land to private ownership in areas throughout the West could impact much of the agency’s land in the southern Wood River Valley, potentially driving down real estate prices, affecting grazing leases and reducing public access. Private development of those lands could increase the county’s stock of affordable housing.
Thousands of acres of so-called “disposable lands,” deemed suitable for sale or transfer by the federal government, exist in and around the Wood River Valley, including land used for grazing and recreation.
BLM land sales in Western states totaled 197,300 acres in the past 10 years, according to a recent study by the University of Arizona. The pace of those sales could increase dramatically if H.R. 5836, the Hunting, Education and Recreational Development Act (HEARD Act) is passed by Congress.
The city of Hailey was identified in a report by the university as one that could be severely affected by land sales or transfers if the bill becomes law.
“Hailey happens to be in a cluster of land that would be sold,” said Cody Sheehy, video coordinator at the University of Arizona and team leader of Our Lands, a multimedia campaign to inform the public about several bills in Congress aimed at ramping up the sale of BLM land.
The BLM typically deems property “potentially suitable for disposal” based on a resource-use management plan. Criteria include proximity to a city and development, conservation or agriculture potential. Some BLM land parcels are fragmented and considered difficult to manage without transferring them, often to another federal entity or nonprofit organization.
A Congressional Research Service report dated Nov. 23 states that under existing authority, the BLM can sell or transfer such lands if it would “serve important public objectives, including but not limited to, expansion of communities and economic development, which cannot be achieved prudently or feasibly on land other than public land and which outweigh other public objectives and values, including, but not limited to, recreation and scenic values. …”
Sheehy said his group recently found that 10.7 million acres of BLM land in the U.S. would be fast-tracked for sale or transfer if the bills that he follows become law.
The HEARD Act would require the sale of 80 percent of lands deemed suitable for disposal within four years (including the land around Hailey), and in a few cases, eight years, Sheehy said.
“This would represent a 50-fold acceleration in public land sales as compared with current levels,” he said.
The act was introduced on July 20, 2017, by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. Seven Republican senators from five states have co-sponsored the bill. It has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands and to the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.
Congressional watchdogs, such as the Skopos Labs website, give the proposed HEARD Act only a slight chance of success, yet environmental groups are monitoring its progress.
The bill’s stated purpose is “to provide for the orderly disposal of certain federal lands, to benefit education and other purposes through the sales of such lands, to consolidate federal lands to improve management [and] to provide for the acquisition of lands for recreational and other opportunities.”
The proposed legislation stipulates that 15 percent of proceeds be paid to the state where the sale takes place to supplement public schools and colleges and state agricultural and natural resource agencies.
The law would require 10 percent of proceeds to be deposited in an account to be created in the U.S. Treasury for the acquisition of recreational beneficial lands and interests, or to achieve better management of public lands through consolidation of federal ownership.
A primary example of large-scale BLM disposable land sales gained widespread attention under the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998. After 20 years, the BLM has sold 30,500 of 70,000 acres designated as suitable for sale around Las Vegas to developers while using the proceeds to protect environmentally sensitive areas and support outdoor recreation.
The Reno Gazette-Journal reported in February that the law and its associated programs use money from public land sales to fund conservation projects, mostly in Nevada, generating more than $3.4 billion for projects in every county in the state, along with Placer and El Dorado counties in California.
“The sale of BLM lands boosted the Las Vegas economy and made possible the purchase of 70,000 acres near Lake Tahoe, which made environmental groups happy,” Sheehy said. “But in that case, they put a huge boundary around the city and sold it all, so this is a narrow example of what could happen with the current legislation. It is slim on details.”
One component of potential BLM land sales in the Wood River Valley could affect the shortage of housing in Blaine County. The Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act has provisions for affordable housing. Under the act, the BLM has so far conveyed about 25 acres to create 650 affordable rental units.
“This land is sold by the BLM at less than fair market value, at as much of [a] reduction as 95 percent. But the 25 acres is a fraction of the 30,500 acres of total land the BLM has conveyed,” the Nevada Independent newspaper reported in May.
Hailey Community Development Director Lisa Horowitz said she is uncertain how much BLM land around the valley could be developed, due to various county restrictions, but some areas in Croy Canyon might be suitable for housing.
Jennifer Jones, acting deputy state director for communications for the Idaho state office of the BLM, said that if the BLM determines that a proposed land sale should go forward, the authorized officer determines if it should be conducted as an open competitive auction, other types of competitive sales or a noncompetitive sale.
A notice of “realty action” describing the proposed sale is then published in the Federal Register and local newspapers, which provides opportunity for public comment.
Jones said BLM Shoshone Field Office land-use plans identify parcels as “potentially suitable for disposal” in Blaine County.
“However, at this time, the BLM has not received any proposals to purchase public land and does not have any plans to identify parcels for sale in Blaine County, which would involve a required National Environmental Policy Act analysis, including required public involvement,” Jones said.
Emily Lande, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign, said passage of the HEARD Act could accelerate the sale of public lands for resource extraction.
“Given the Trump administration’s track record on selling off our public lands to enrich private industries, it would be a mistake to accelerate or expand federal land sales with this or any other legislation,” Lande said.
The federal government owns about 640 million acres, concentrated in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM administers 247 million acres, including 12 million in Idaho.
For more information about the Our Lands campaign, go to ourland.arizona.edu.