Photo: Brian Klonoski
A Republican Congress joined at the hip to the fossil-fuel industry is trying to pull a fast one on Americans.
It started with a subtle rule change authored by Utah Republican representative Rob Bishop, a noted enemy of endangered species and the environment. The measure, which the GOP brushed off as routine, rendered public lands worthless from a budgetary standpoint, making them much easier to sell or give away.
A couple weeks later, another Republican representative from Utah, Jason Chaffetz, introduced a bill to sell 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 western states. The move was largely seen as a sequel to Bishop’s rule change, and Phase Two of a master plan to transfer ownership of federal lands to the states, which ironically can’t afford the incredible cost of managing them — unless, of course, they sell out to fossil-fuel interests and other extractive industries.
Then democracy happened.
Anglers, hunters, conservationists, corporations, environmentalists, outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen coalesced in a furious outrage. There were protests. Big brands, like Patagonia and Black Diamond, threatened to move an outdoor-industry trade show out of Utah unless the state’s public lands remained unassaulted (update: Patagonia followed through and will boycott the show). My Instagram feed — full of fly fishermen, adventure photographers and environmental activists — blew up with #KeepItPublic posts.
Yes, the land-transfer movement finally (and unfortunately) has momentum in Congress, but there’s enough opposition to thwart the heist — at least for now. Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to selling off federal lands. That’s because these precious, wild spaces mean so much to so many. Like fireworks and apple pie, public lands are something most Americans can appreciate. They unite rather than divide us. Congress would be wise to turn their backs on the oil barons and keep these lands public.
I’m one of the millions of Americans who have a special relationship with public lands. It started as a kid when my grandparents took me on cross-country road trips during the summers. We hit all the popular national parks — Shenandoah, Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone and Glacier, to name a few. But it wasn’t until four years ago, when I moved from Maine to California, that my appreciation for public lands grew beyond the National Park System.
You see, only 1.1 percent of Maine belongs to the federal government. But nearly half of California — almost 46 million acres — is public land. The National Park Service accounts for only 16.5 percent of that acreage. The rest is managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). If you’re into the outdoors, much of that public land — which is less crowded and cheaper to access compared to national parks — makes for the perfect playground.
After an unexpected layoff a couple years ago, I spent the aftermath exploring California and sleeping alone under the stars, often pitching my tent and resting my head on public land. It is in the Sierra and Inyo National Forests, as well as the famous Alabama Hills, that I honed my abilities as a landscape and outdoor lifestyle photographer. Whatever I was looking for — whether it be a cozy spot to sit by a fire, a backcountry campsite to escape civilization for the night or a stream teeming with colorful, wild trout — public lands seemed to always soothe my soul.
My growing love of the natural world, and the opportunity to explore and interact with it on public land, is what led me to environmentalism and eventually here to Planet Experts.
I’m not alone. Crisscrossed by nearly 200,000 miles of hiking trails and more than 12,600 miles of mountain biking trails, public lands are popular places to go. They host 71 percent of climbing routes and boast enough beautiful rivers, streams and lakes to account for 43 percent of all paddling. The droves of people visiting public lands every year should be no shock, then: An incredible 281 million to NPS lands; 46 million to wildlife refuges; 177 million to national forests; and 58 million to wilderness managed by the BLM.
But it’s not just the sheer number of visitors, it’s all the different types of people these last, great places attract. Many groups of passionate Americans rely on public lands to pursue their inalienable right to happiness: Hikers, campers, backpackers, anglers, hunters, star gazers, climbers, mountain bikers, paddlers, photographers, surfers, wildlife watchers, snowmobilers, ATVers, dirt bikers, cross-country skiers and plain, old sight-seers.
All those visitors drop serious coin to do what they love, which is why the economic implications of eliminating public lands are disastrous. The outdoor economy generates $646 billion in annual spending, sustains 6.1 million jobs and raises $40 billion in federal tax revenue every year. If Congress begins privatizing public land, you can bid those cheery numbers adieu.
We obviously can’t rely on the Trump administration to do anything about the issue, either.
The President’s thoughts on the matter — if he really possesses any such things — seem divided. On the one hand, Trump defended keeping public lands public in an interview with Field & Stream, going so far as to bemoan the lack of funding and attention they’ve received. On the other hand, he has praised the spirit and spunk of Cliven Bundy, a racist cattle rancher who believes public lands are a repressive symbol of federal overreach. Bundy is currently in jail on charges related to an armed standoff with the BLM over unpaid grazing fees.
President Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, is a bit of a wild card, too. The Republican representative and former senator from Montana has been a fervent opponent of land transfer, but he voted in favor of Rob Bishop’s rule change to devalue public lands, causing many to question his true motives.
Thankfully, we don’t need either of these guys to stop what’s already been dubbed The Great Public Land Heist. There are enough of us who love and rely on these unspoiled tracts of wilderness to fight for them. And fight we will.
As Americans continue to flock to cities, and urban areas grow in number and size, it is even more important to perpetuate our national tradition of protecting our country’s most wildly beautiful and vulnerable landscapes.
Many of the most popular public lands are already facing serious issues related to overuse and crowds, highlighting the need to secure more federal lands, not sell off the precious acres we already own. For example, a paddler or angler hoping to float Idaho’s Snake River only had a 1 in 28 chance of securing a permit in 2015. What happens when other public lands get sold off and even more outdoorsman hope to experience the Snake?
This is another one of those issues that boils down to a simple, grotesque absurdity: The only real reason to divest public lands is so states can sell or lease them to gas, oil and other industries determined to pillage America’s natural resources for the outrageous financial gain of a select few, including our president and Republican members of Congress.
Remember our land-transferring friends from Utah? Rep. Rob Bishop has accepted $390,216 from the oil and gas industries. Rep. Jason Chaffetz — who didn’t run for office until 2008 — has taken $51,800.
While it’s true that a quarter of America’s fossil-fuel energy comes from resources harvested on public lands, those same stretches of rugged country are also vital to the expansion of renewables and remain open for recreational use. If public lands are transferred to states then sold to gas and oil companies, disappointed sportsmen and sportswomen are likely to encounter more chainlink fences and “NO TRESPASSING” signs as they lose access to their beloved common grounds.
These are dire days for the environment, but the public land heist is one area where we can successfully resist. Shame on Republicans in Congress for taking America’s most valuable assets and designating them as worthless in an effort to pander to the antiquated practices of their fossil-fuel friends. Double shame for doing it right under our noses.
Our national parks, wildlife refuges, nationals forests and designated wilderness areas are the crown jewels of a country celebrated for its unmatched diversity of landscapes. These are the places where fathers teach their sons to fish, where climbers tackle their first pitch and where backpackers disappear into the wild.
America’s forests, mountains, streams, lakes, beaches and deserts are not for sale. These are the sacred spots where we come together around campfires to celebrate the natural beauty that makes our country so unique. Public lands shape our relationship with nature and ourselves. They are the great, unbounded arenas where we can exercise our uniquely American freedom.
#KeepItPublic — today, tomorrow, forever.