[Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives]

When hunters and anglers speak, Rep. Jason Chaffetz listens.

Faced with an outcry from sportsmen’s groups, the Utah Republican announced last week that he is withdrawing a bill that could have cleared the way for the sale or transfer of 3.3 million acres of federal lands to state or private interests.

Moab resident Trish Hedin, a former chair and longtime member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s now-defunct local chapter, said Chaffetz likely did not want to go against something that many of his constituents support: continued access to public lands in Utah and other Western states.

Hedin, who hails from a family that made its living in the timber industry, said that hunters like herself value Utah for its public lands and diverse wildlife habitat in places like the remote Book Cliffs north of Moab.

“It’s just a great place to hunt,” she said. “You go over to Colorado, and you’re just girdled by private lands everywhere.”

For that reason, she noted, sportsmen’s groups rallied against past proposals to increase development in roadless areas, such as state efforts to expand oil and gas development in the Book Cliffs.

Although numerous environmentalists and conservation groups came out against Chaffetz’ House Resolution 621, Hedin suspects that sportsmen’s collective voices carry greater weight with GOP representatives like the District 3 congressman.

“I hate to generalize, but I would say that sportsmen are generally more on the Republican side,” she said.

If he continued to pursue the bill, Chaffetz would have contended with not only the elk foundation, but the Mule Deer Foundation, the National Wildlife Turkey Foundation, Sportsmen for Public Lands and too many other sportsmen’s groups to name.

“There’s a bajillion of them,” Hedin said.

Moab resident and Sierra Club member Wayne Hoskisson agreed that sportsmen were instrumental to the outcome.

“That’s an issue that affects a lot of people, and I think he was responding to pressure from hunters and anglers,” Hoskisson said.

Chaffetz, who called himself a proud gun owner and hunter who “loves” America’s public lands, conceded as much.

“The bill would have disposed of small parcels of lands (that former President Bill Clinton) identified as serving no public purpose but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message,” he said in a Feb. 1 statement. “… I look forward to working with you. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”

Hoskisson said that Chaffetz’ decision to kill HR 621 is commendable, and he believes the congressman “responded appropriately” to the people who contacted his office.

“I think, to me, it’s a good thing when politicians respond to people’s concerns,” he said. “I wish he would do it more regularly.”

HR 621 – the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act – would have authorized the disposal of more than 132,000 acres in Utah. More than one-tenth of that land – about 15,400 acres – is in west-central Grand County, scattered largely in parcels just east of the town of Green River.

Chaffetz unveiled the bill on Jan. 24, days after President Donald Trump took office.

In a statement, he said the “long overdue” disposal of excess federal lands would free up resources for the federal government, while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities.

It marked the fifth time in five years that Chaffetz introduced a version of the bill, which he based on a 20-year-old, Clinton Administration-era report that Congress mandated the U.S. Interior Department to prepare.

However, that report has not been updated since 1997, and based on the acreage it identified for disposal, it does not appear that Chaffetz’ bill accounted for local or regional land exchanges in subsequent years.

Many of the same parcels were previously identified in the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act of 2009, which authorized the transfer of some BLM lands to Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) for BLM lands of equal value. The BLM and SITLA finalized those exchanges in 2014, yet the Green River-area parcels and other parcels that SITLA identified that year as part of the land exchanges were included in HR 621, based on their management status in 1997.

Former BLM Moab Recreation Planner Russ von Koch, who worked on related issues during his time with the agency, said that “quite a bit” of the disposable acreage in the Green River area has already left federal hands.

“The state has acquired those through a couple of land trades,” von Koch said.

Another disposal pre-dated those land trades: Some time around the year 2007, the BLM formally disposed of a 30-acre parcel that was listed in the 1997 report, according to BLM Canyon Country District Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant.

Hoskisson said it’s “almost nonsensical” to him that the bill attempted to force the sale of certain lands that are mentioned in the 1997 report: Some parcels lack legal access, he said, while others are home to active oil and gas leases and livestock grazing allotments.

“I think it was a dramatic political gesture, and not really a thought-out piece of legislation,” he said.

HR 621 would have “disposed” of 3.3 million acres

I think, to me, it’s a good thing when politicians respond to people’s concerns … I wish (Chaffetz) would do it more regularly.