Landing a Land Transaction

A Wyoming congressional representative is trying to resurrect a federal land sale act to reduce the budget deficit and help the National Park Service end a long quest to capture a Grand Teton inholding.

The Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (pronounced “flit-fah”) was enacted in July 2000 to allow federal agencies to sell off disposable lands identified prior to the bill and stash most of the profits for land purchases to preserve important cultural, wildlife or protected sites. (High Country News writer Zachary Smith wrote about the Bureau of Land Management’s interest in upping land transactions under the Act in 2004.)

Kimberly Hirai

The Act expired in 2010, but Congress resurrected it last July for an additional year through an emergency appropriations bill. It died a second time this summer. Flit-fah is now flitting its way back into Congress. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., introduced a bill Nov. 4 to bring the act back. Lummis wants it to help close a lagging land sale from the State of Wyoming to the Department of Interior. The sale includes some 1,400 acres worth $107 million in Grand Teton National Park.  Money from land sales could be used toward the cost of that inholding.

“We have 33,000 federal buildings in this country that are not being used. We have tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — of acres, federal land, BLM land that is on their disposal list,” Lummis said.

Negotiations between the Interior Department and the state over the Grand Teton property have limped on for years. The State of Wyoming is eager to sell—it only reaps $2,000-3,000 per year off the land from cattle grazing. Last year, former Gov. Dave Freudenthal gave the National Park Service an ultimatum meant to push the deal through, threatening to put the land up for sale if the federal government did not negotiate a trade that would give the state mineral rights, other land, or education money (some of the inholding lands are state school trust lands intended to generate funds for public education).  The two parties finally agreed that the Department of Interior would buy the parcels in a series of four purchases starting January 5, 2012.

Lummis says the act is a good alternative to Congress-dependent initiatives like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the proposed method of payment for the Grand Teton transaction. The fund received a little more than $301 million for the 2011 fiscal year — a 33 percent cut from 2010 funding levels.

“In this financial environment, we have to expedite the conversion of surplus federal property to cash because we can’t appropriate it from taxpayer dollars. We’re broke,” Lummis said. The bill would reauthorize the land transaction act until 2018 and take another look at an inventory of properties eligible for sale.

The act seems to work— since 2000, the Bureau of Land Management has sold off 27,000 acres (mostly from Nevada bureau land transactions), generating a profit that paid for $94 million in land acquisitions for the BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service.

And Lummis’ plan shows promise. Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced a similar bill that was later put on the Senate calendar. Lummis’ bill has also garnered support from the Sierra Club, The Conservation Fund and Wyoming Outdoor Council among others. It was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.  Not surprisingly, although Lummis claims bipartisan support for her bill, “some in Congress, particularly Republicans, have shown a hesitance to appropriate scarce federal dollars to buy new lands,” according to Environment and Energy Daily.

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

(Banner photo by Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)

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