Published March 19, 2011
Three Republican lawmakers are seeking to force Uncle Sam to sell about 3.3 million acres of land he no longer needs to help pay down the national debt.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced legislation this week in their respective chambers that would order Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to dispose of the federal property that the Clinton administration identified in a 1997 report as suitable for sale.
The lands are located in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming and amounts to roughly 1 percent of all land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and less than one half of 1 percent of all federal land, the lawmakers said.
"The federal budget, much like the household budgets of millions of American families, is stretched alarmingly thin in today's fiscal climate. Congress must explore all possible avenues for reducing our $1.4 trillion deficit and all ballooning $14 trillion national debt," McCain said in a statement. "Our legislation aims to reduce the federal estate in a way that's mindful of how we currently manage our public lands and seeks to dispose land that the federal government simply does not want."
Sen. Mike Lee said the sale of the land alone could generate more than $1 billion and lead to strong economic development.
"That will mean jobs, future growth, and better prosperity for the surrounding areas," he said.
Chaffetz said, "While there are national treasuries worthy of federal protection, there are lands that should be returned to private ownership. If the land serves no public purpose, and is 'identified for disposal' let's return it to private ownership."
The Interior Department declined to comment on the legislation.
A federal law enacted in July 2000 allows the Interior Department to sell public lands identified for disposal before that date and pocket the proceeds in a special Treasury account. Interior can then use that money to acquire stretches of land under private ownership within a national park.
Robert Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, testified before Congress in 2009 that many of the lands that his agency has identified for disposal are isolated or scattered parcels in remote areas with relatively low value.
"Frequently, there is limited interest in acquiring these lands, and the costs of preparing them for sale may exceed their market value," he told a Senate legislative committee.