Jeb Bush outlines plans to limit federal control of Western lands

This story originally appeared on High Country News

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush this week waded deeper into issues of public land than any other candidate has yet, promising to ease Washington’s grip over the region. During a visit to Nevada, he proposed to transplant the Interior Department from Washington, D.C., to one of the big cities of the West.

Bush’s Western Land and Resource Management agenda includes initiatives tantalizing both to industry and conservationists. He pledged to undo the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule, which provides more protection for small streams and wetlands. But he also promised to prioritize public access to federal lands and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which, as High Country News reported, Congress recently let expire.

The general gist of Bush’s comments on public lands matched his overall political mantra: Limit Washington, D.C.’s influence over the rest of the country and increase state and local control. The former governor of Florida said he would defer to states in managing wildlife, streams and wetlands and in deciding when and where to establish national monuments.

“If you just start with the premise that people in their own communities actually care about their communities more than someone that’s removed from 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 miles away,” Bush said Wednesday during a small event with Nevada leaders at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno.

Bush says he would aim to treat Western communities as partners in managing federal lands. “First and foremost let’s build a partnership that’s not top down,” Bush said in Reno. “I think you’ll find that the pressures, you know frustrations, would subside.”

One idea Bush has to improve the relationship between Washington and the West is to move the Interior Department. He suggests Denver, Reno and Salt Lake City as possible new homes.

“Historically, presidents export a Secretary of the Interior from the West to Washington, D.C. It is time to import the Department from Washington, DC to the West,” Bush’s plan states.

On the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Bush pledged to permanently reauthorize the popular 50-year-old conservation program, which has provided funds to buy local parks and expand national parks and forests. But Bush said he would divert some money for maintenance projects for national parks as a 100th anniversary present to the National Park Service.

Despite the small size of the Reno event, some protesters were on hand and they chanted: “Keep public lands public!”

Nevada has been a hotspot of the movement to transfer federal lands to local control. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has long refused to pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management, became a celebrity of the movement by staging a standoff with BLM agents in 2014. The League of Conservation Voters accused Bush of encouraging such behavior.

“Jeb Bush’s proposal comes straight out of the playbook of Nevada’s own Cliven Bundy,” says Seth Stein, the press secretary of the League of Conservation Voters. “It will weaken the protections for the public lands that belong to everyone.”

But former Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki told KRNV television that Bush demonstrated that he understands issues that are crucial to Nevada.

Although public lands in the West have received little attention from the candidates so far, Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, has suggested increasing fees to federal fossil fuels.

Bush’s Western lands plan and his trip to Nevada received relatively little media attention, reflecting the candidate’s bleak standings in public opinion polls. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday showed Bush with only seven percent of Republican and GOP-leaning voters favoring him. Frontrunner Donald Trump garnered 32 percent and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is running second in the contest for the GOP nomination, 22 percent.

Bush’s main event in Nevada, following the forum at which he announced his public lands proposals, was a town hall meeting with a Latino group, Libre Initiative.  At that meeting, Bush addressed a wide range of other issues, including immigration, job growth and school reform. For nearly every issue Bush had the same refrain: “Washington has too much power.”


Correction, October 23, 2015: The original story identified Brian Krolicki as Nevada’s governor. He is actually former Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN’s DC Correspondent.

High Country News
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Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr