The newly approved Republican platform expands the party’s support for turning over federal lands to the states — creating a new flashpoint in the presidential campaign.
The call for sweeping land transfers comes largely from Republicans in Oregon and other western states with huge tracts of federal forests and grasslands. They have long argued that the federal government is a poor land manager that puts too many restrictions on logging, ranching and mining.
But critics say it would damage the environment, and they frequently demonize the idea by saying it’s aligned with the kind of sentiment that led to the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“It caters to the worst elements out there,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It’s out of touch with mainstream America.”
The sweeping proposal comes as the Republicans are nominating a candidate, Donald Trump, who appears to have major doubts about the idea. He criticized one of his rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for embracing the idea during the Nevada caucuses in February.
One of Trump’s sons, Donald Trump Jr., was more explicit in a June appearance hosted by Forsburgh’s group.
“This is where we’ve probably broken away from a lot of the traditional conservative dogma on the issue, in that we do want federal lands to remain federal,” said Trump Jr., an avid hunter who frequently advises his father.
The younger Trump added: “That’s not to say that the states shouldn’t have a larger role perhaps in managing some of those lands.”
The new language in the platform, approved Monday, states:
“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands, identified in the review process, to all willing states for the benefit of the states and the nation as a whole. The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live.”
The language is stronger and more sweeping than it was in 2012. Donna Cain, an Oregon member of the Republican National Committee and a member of the platform committee, said the intent is to encourage major land transfers.
“The states are going to take better care of the land,” said Cain, arguing that the federal government is particularly failing to actively manage its timberlands.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the new plank in the platform highlights local frustrations that many ranchers, farmers and timber companies have throughout the West.
But he said he didn’t see the votes necessary for it to pass in Congress.
Walden said he has talked to Trump about Republican legislation in Congress aimed at boosting timber harvests on federal land and “he was all aboard.”