Contrary to Rhetoric, Westerners Want to Keep Public Lands in Public Hands | Commentary

Posted September 12, 2014 at 2:09pm

There is nothing more American than enjoying our public lands. All summer long, Americans packed picnics and campers, grabbed their fishing gear and headed to the woods, the mountains, the shores and the grasslands of America’s public lands — America’s big backyard.

As we move into autumn, people all across America are also gearing up for hunting seasons. For many hunters, the chase will take place on public lands. This is especially true in the West, where hunters use public land at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country.

Our national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands protect important wildlife habitat and key watersheds. They support a $646 billion outdoor recreation economy. They draw visitors from around the world. Public lands are a proud legacy that makes America unique.

And they are under assault.

Every few decades, a small cadre of ideological separatists revives the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion. With heated rhetoric about the failures of federal management, they call for wholesale disposal of public lands. This time around, they’re employing telegenic protests and provocative threats of armed revolt, backed up by specious legal theories from well-heeled think-tanks.

This nonsense has caught the attention of some in Congress. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced an amendment last summer to mandate the wholesale auction of public lands. A bill (HR 2657) by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, would force the sale of 3.3 million acres of public land based on a vague 15-year-old study. The budget resolution approved by the House even calls for selling off public land to pay for other government spending.

In addition to being bad policy, these proposals are wildly out of line with public opinion. Countless polls show that those of us who live in the West love our public lands. The bipartisan 2014 Conservation in the West poll found that 95 percent of us have visited public lands in the past year, with large majorities making multiple trips to hunt, fish, backpack and camp. We also want to keep public lands in public hands: 74 percent of Westerners oppose selling off national forests and other public lands.

That’s not to say that there aren’t real problems with land management in the West. Those of us who live here see firsthand the threat of wildfire, erosion, degraded rangelands and conflicts over land uses. As a result, we’ve worked with our neighbors to develop local solutions that balance the wise use of resources with conservation. Initiatives such as Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (S 37) and the community-driven efforts that led to new national monuments in New Mexico show that real Westerners work to solve problems, not stage political stunts.

We are discouraged when lawmakers fall prey to the rhetoric and insist on one-size-fits-all answers like disposing of public lands. We need solutions, not political talking points. It’s all the more disappointing to see these ill-founded proposals as we mark the 50th anniversaries of both the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Leaders from both parties passed those landmark laws with an eye to the future and a commitment to our American heritage.

The fate of public lands is not a political game for the millions of hunters, anglers, birders, hikers, paddlers and other wildlife enthusiasts who belong to the National Wildlife Federation and our state Wildlife Federations. Our members come from all walks of life and every part of the political spectrum. Our founder, Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, was a staunch Republican who worked with Democrats to build the conservation movement in the past century.

In defense of our public lands, all 49 state affiliates of the National Wildlife Federation approved a resolution last spring affirming our support for keeping public lands public. Forty-one of the affiliates also sent a letter urging the Republican National Committee to rescind its support for federal land divestiture.

Our elected officials need to heed the facts about land management in the West and listen to those of us who live here, not the ideological activists and law-breakers who show up on the 24-hour news channels. Hunters, anglers, and other conservationists want our lands protected and passed on to future generations, not sold off.

Dave Chadwick is executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Garrett VeneKlasen is executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.