Over the last few years, we’ve talked a lot about a movement we’ve called “the public land heist,” a plot lead by a group of far-right ideologues and their allies in extractive industries who want to privatize control of our country’s public lands for their own personal or political profit. These “neo-Sagebrush rebels” have pushed an agenda aimed at turning public lands that belong to all Americans into private profit. This agenda is exemplified by efforts to transfer national public lands to state governments. It’s a movement that threatens our access to public lands, and our say in how they are managed, and aims to tip the balance among public lands uses toward resource extraction.
So, what’s the latest?
First, the good news. In one sense, we are winning. Over the last few years, we’ve beaten back the worst, most overt threats to privatize public lands or transfer them to the states. State legislatures across the West are rejecting land heist legislation. In Congress, some of the most vocal proponents of state takeover or privatization have walked away from bills they had previously supported, as exemplified by the decision of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to withdraw H.R. 621, his bill proposing to sell off millions of acres of public land. In another example, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) announced that he would not be reintroducing his bill from the last congress that proposed to turn over millions of acres of public land to the state of Nevada. “Transferring millions of acres of public lands … is not something I think the majority of people think is a good idea,” he told a Nevada newspaper earlier this year.
These changes are happening because people across the country are speaking up and telling their elected officials that they support public lands. Elected officials at all levels are learning that attacking public lands outright isn’t just bad policy, it’s bad politics. When they propose to take away the places that belong to all of us, they have gotten an earful, from kayakers and climbers, hunters and anglers, and people of all political persuasions. So let’s keep it up.
Now, the bad news. These neo-Sagebrush types aren’t giving up on gaining control of our public lands, they’re just changing tactics. Here’s where it gets a little more wonky...
In our view, public lands depend on three key attributes. Public lands as we know them are:
- Publicly owned, with rights of access;
- Managed through a public process, with laws to protect the most important places; and
- Stewarded by land managers who have the resources they need to do a proper job.
Over the last few years, our community can be proud of the work we’ve done to fight off threats to the first attribute—public ownership. Now, though, neo-Sagebrush types are turning their attention to dismantling the public process and funding for public lands. These new, concerted attacks pose a grave threat to our national public lands.
Public lands are appropriately managed for a range of values, including extractive uses. To strike a balance among sometimes-competing uses, land management agencies necessarily have a public process with opportunities for public involvement. Balanced land management also requires conservation laws—like the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Antiquities Act—to protect the most important places.
The neo-Sagebrush rebellion has systematically attacked the public process. These interests understand that privatizing public lands and natural resources is deeply unpopular, so instead of simply ripping public lands out of public hands, they aim to slowly cut the public out. Their methods include systematically taking the public’s voice out of land management, and scaling back the conservation laws that protect the places we all rightly view as natural treasures.
Examples of these kinds of attacks include:
- President Trump and Secretary Zinke’s “Monument review,” which not only threatens specific landscapes, but undermines the Antiquities Act, an essential conservation tool;
- The “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017” (H.R. 2936), a bill by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), which would eliminate environmental reviews and public participation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for Forest Planning and many logging projects.
- Bills to increase “local control” over national public lands, for example by requiring state, or even county-level approval for land management decisions on national public lands.
The second major line of attack is against funding for public lands. If your goal is to build political support for the transfer of public lands, a great way to do that is to make sure that federal land managers can’t do a good job. These attacks take a variety of forms:
- Resistance to necessary fixes to fire suppression funding, which robs agencies of the resources they need for other tasks;
- Attacks on the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funds recreation access projects and important conservation work; and
- Constant pressure to reduce agency budgets through inadequate appropriations.
The good news is that we can continue to hold the line against these threats by making lawmakers understand that our community rightly view them as attacks on our public lands. When a member of congress proposes to take NEPA out of Forest Planning, or the Secretary of the Interior proposes to undo Monument protections, that is as much an attack on our public lands as threats to sell off millions of acres outright. These proposals are advanced by the same interests, and pursue the same ends: taking your public lands, and handing over ownership or control to a small group of would-be profiteers.
Outdoor Alliance will keep you in the loop on specific opportunities to reach out to your elected officials. And if you want to take a deeper dive on the latest on the public land heist, you can check out our white paper at right.