UPDATE: Senators join outdoor companies, non-profits; ask feds to ban public land sell-offs

The "public land takeover" movement aims to remove large swaths of territory from the protective shield of federal agencies so that they can be taken over by state governments.

Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS). 

UPDATE: Seven senators, led by Sen. Tom Udall, have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Zinke asking that he respond to the petition, citing Zinke's past position that public lands should remain in public hands.

A range of companies and organizations including The Wilderness Society, American Alpine Club and First Lite Clothing have submitted a legal petition via the Administrative Procedure Act that would direct Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to develop rules prohibiting the sale or transfer of public lands. 

The petition is a proactive measure to shield public lands from the radical "land takeover" movement, which aims to remove large swaths of territory from the protective shield of federal agencies like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management so that they can be taken over by state governments—potentially leading to these places being sold off to oil, mining and logging companies. 

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claims to oppose public land takeovers, but his position has become muddled in recent months. Credit: Gage Skidmore, flickr.

Secretary Zinke has said he opposes the land takeover movement, but his infamous "review" of wildlands and cultural sites protected under the Antiquities Act, among other disturbing anti-public lands actions, call into question that allegedly rock-solid commitment. In some cases, Zinke's Interior department has tacitly supported land sell-offs, once offering positive testimony for a bill that would push the Bureau of Land Management to sell off 6,000 acres of public land in northwestern Arizona

The APA petition asks Secretary Zinke to clarify where he stands and put his old promise in writing. During the next six months, we are asking Secretary Zinke to develop regulations that would prohibit the sale or transfer of public lands administered by the agency.  

Although any American can make an APA petition request, the call for a formal rule of this kind has never been necessary until now. 

History shows pitfalls of state-run public land policies 

As the petition points out, when states control public lands, they typically treat them as simply assets for maximizing revenue. A 2016 Wilderness Society report showed that Idaho has sold off about 1.7 million acres of state-controlled land for development; in many cases, those sales cut off cherished outdoor recreation spots. Earlier this year, another report found that since statehood, Utah has liquidated more than 54 percent of the land originally granted to it, including major archaeological sites and wildlife habitat.   

The signer companies and organizations are calling on the Interior Department to prevent this type of scenario in the future. 

Where does Secretary Zinke stand? Petition asks him to #KeepItPublic 

Once committed to ensuring public lands stay public, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's position on the issue has become muddled since his nomination by President Trump. 

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, when he was an at-large congressman representing Montana, Rep. Zinke opposed some legislative measures that would transfer national public lands to state control, even resigning as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over the GOP's inclusion of a land takeover plank in its official platform. It was a rare example of principled dissent in a fiercely partisan nation's capital.


Since statehood, Utah has liquidated more than 54 percent of the land originally granted to it, including major archaeological sites and wildlife habitat--a lesson on the consequences of transferring public lands to state control. Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).   

However, weeks after he was tapped to head the Interior Department, Zinke cast a troubling vote for a House rule that would make public land takeovers or sell-offs easier. In a subsequent confirmation hearing before the Senate, he seemed to reverse course again, saying he would never sell or transfer public lands. 

Since Zinke was confirmed as part of the Trump administration in March 2017, he has seemingly adapted to the shape of the White House that hired him, cozying up to a broadly pro-drilling and –development agenda that values public lands primarily for the commercial opportunities that can be extracted from or erected upon them. He has even hired Interior staffers with links to extreme anti-public lands groups

The new petition is a chance for Secretary Zinke to show his confirmation statements were more than empty words—that despite destructive actions like subjecting national monument lands to punitive "review," Zinke still believes in the fundamental idea of public lands open to and protected for all Americans.  

If Secretary Zinke denies the petition and does not make a rule to ensure public lands stay public, we will know once and for all where he stands. 

Please join American businesses, outdoor recreation and advocacy groups  in demanding Secretary Zinke put his money where his mouth is.