By Tom Flynn, Outdoor Alliance
If you are anything like me, you own a lot of outdoor gear. Not just skis and bikes and fly rods, but multiples of each, for different uses: pow, spring, mountain, town, cross, big river and small stream. Our garages, bins, and basements are overflowing with the tools to enjoy the outdoors to the maximum.
We also own something much larger and far more fundamental. When you are out skiing, riding or fishing more often than not you own the places you are enjoying. That snowy mountain range? Yours. The forest around the singletrack? Yours. That clean, accessible trout stream? Yours too. Though it’s not usually what we’re thinking about out there, these places that provide so much challenge and peace and joy are public lands, collectively owned by all Americans.
The existence of vast tracks of protected, accessible public land is pretty astonishing, if you think about it. No other country reserves its citizens the right to so much room to roam. People in Washington and New York alike have an ownership stake in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, for example. We all have legally protected rights to visit and to help guide the management of some of the greatest natural treasures on earth. When we enjoy our public lands, we are shareholders, not customers.
Of course, collective ownership of anything can be hard work - just think about some of the roommates you've probably had. Public lands are no different, and no one thinks federal management is perfect. Trying to balance all the competing uses of the places we own together is challenging, and it could certainly be improved.
But the greatest threat our lands face is the idea that they should not be ours at all.
Right now, a few politicians in every single western state but California are trying to find ways to take our land from us, and give it to state governments. This is exactly what it sounds like – a boldfaced land grab on a massive scale. They want our lands for themselves, to manage as timber farms, to charge us fees to camp there, and to sell to corporations.
"When you are out skiing, riding or fishing more often than not you own the places you are enjoying. That snowy mountain range? Yours. The forest around the singletrack? Yours. That clean, accessible trout stream? Yours too."
You don’t need to know anything about how ahistorical, unconstitutional, or uneconomical these efforts are to know they are a bad idea. No matter how the supporters spin it, the fact remains: they want our land for themselves.
Recently, this idea made it out of the western fringes and into the national spotlight. A majority of US Senators voted on a toothless but important budget amendment that validates the idea of the transfer of public lands to the states. Then this week, two Utah representatives launched the Federal Land Action Group to “determine the best congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners.”
This frightening idea is steadily moving from theory towards reality. Whether or not it ever gets there, we cannot ignore it. The idea that public lands are not ours is such an affront to the places we care about and the pursuits we enjoy - an affront, really, to a defining feature of American life - that it demands a response. We are facing a long term, systematic attack on American public lands.
Of all the gear we have, the most important thing we own in order to enjoy the outdoors is in fact the land itself. We cannot let anyone take that from us.