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Western Public Lands

Americans won't support public-lands giveaway

From sagebrush country to remote forests, our national public lands belong to all Americans. Image: Aaron Kindle

“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune." ~ President Theodore Roosevelt.

By Judith Kohler

The great American conservationist and leader who made that comment about our outdoors heritage would be outraged by elected officials who could look at our national public lands and decide they’re worthless.

Yet that’s the message the U.S. House has sent with a package of rules that includes one that will clear the way for handing over national public lands to states. The change would essentially codify a lie – that loss of our public lands wouldn’t cost the nation anything. 

In purely economic terms, that’s an outrageous statement. Our public lands accommodate multiple uses, including grazing, logging, mining and recreation. National parks and monuments, wildlife refuges and forest lands generate billions of dollars year after year for local, state and federal coffers.

Public lands are essential to maintaining healthy fish and wildlife populations that draw hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers from across the country and the world. Much of the water used by communities nationwide originates on public lands.

Instead of negating the worth of public lands, Congress should actually update how the land’s value is calculated. As Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva noted in a statement, the Congressional Budget Office “already significantly undervalues federal land conveyances,” focusing on revenue generated from things like mining, logging and grazing. The value of public lands is only growing. 

Here are just a few of the numbers:

  • Gateway communities across the country benefit economically from being near national park lands. In 2015, the National Park System logged 307.2 million recreation visits, resulting in $16.9 billion in spending in gateway regions – areas within 60 miles of a park.
  • In fiscal 2015, the activities and services of the Interior Department, which oversees most of our public lands, generated $300 billion of economic output, created about $170 billion in value-added contributions and supported an estimated 1.8 million jobs.
  • Outdoor recreation, much of which occurs on public lands, each year generates $646 billion in consumer spending and is responsible for 6.1 million direct jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Money spent on outdoor recreation far outpaces that of the following industries: pharmaceuticals; motor vehicles and parts; gasoline and other fuels; household utilities.

Those are the kinds of facts and figures that members of the House are willing to ignore in their headlong rush to start racking up ideological points.

There are a few facts, however, that, try as they might, members of Congress won’t be able to dodge. Whatever message voters sent in the November election, it wasn’t that they wanted to get rid of America’s public lands. Poll after poll has shown strong support for the great American outdoor heritage that leaders from both parties have worked to maintain for more than a century. A 2016 poll by Colorado College found that 72 percent of Western voters believe national public lands help their state economy. Our bedrock conservation laws were championed by politicians from both parties and signed by presidents of both parties. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have used the Antiquities Act to conserve some of our most important historic and archaeological treasures and irreplaceable landscapes.

A couple other salient facts: President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, have voiced support for keeping American public lands in public hands. Most of the hunters and anglers who voted for Trump weren’t voting to see their favorite hunting and fishing areas closed, transferred to the state and then likely auctioned off to the highest bidder when the state couldn’t afford to manage the lands.

This country is unique among industrialized countries. We’re the world’s economic leader and we still have huge, roaming herds of elk and deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, cutthroat trout whose genetics trace back to the last Ice Age – and seashores, rocky mountaintops, rolling grasslands and remote forests where everyone is welcome. It’s all ours. It’s our shared legacy. It’s fundamental to who we are as Americans.

And we’re not going to let anyone give it away.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017