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House GOP wants to transfer federal lands to states — and environmentalists should be worried

On Tuesday, the new Republican-controlled Congress passed a new House rules package, which, among others things, made it easier for federal lands to be transferred to states. What this means is that states that need to raise extra money could, and likely will, lease or sell lands to oil companies, loggers or ranchers instead of maintaining them for public use.

This is a substantial change. Previously, the federal government had to offset any income it lost through land transfers by cutting budgets or raising revenues elsewhere. But the new rule removes that obstacle, which means the federal government will likely be a lot more willing to hand land over to states.

Given that both Donald Trump and his pick to run the Department of the Interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, had previously voiced their opposition to federal land transfers, the GOP’s proposed rule change seemed like it might cause a fight between Republicans and the incoming administration. After all, Zinke had previously said he would “never agree with the transfer or sale of public lands. I view our lands as sacred.” And Trump had said he opposed these kinds of transfers because he wanted “to keep the lands great.” But, in an epic flip-flop, Zinke voted in favor of the new House rules package on Tuesday.

Zinke’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson told E&E, the energy and environment publication, “The congressman’s position against the sale or transfer of public lands has in no way changed. He has never voted to sell public lands. Period.” Still, it’s hard to see Zinke’s vote as anything other than an endorsement of public lands transfers — and a sign of a shift in the Trump administration’s stance.

This change in the federal government’s attitude is something certain states have been hoping to see for some time. Utah, whose representatives pushed for the rule change, is one of them. The state’s legislature has been pushing to take over 31 million acres of federal public land — something it claims the state has had the right to do since 1894, when Congress passed the Utah Enabling Act, which set the stage for the state to join the Union.

Now, Utah’s government may finally get its way.