This Land is Your Land… And Yours, And Yours, And Yours
Unless you’ve been hiding under Mahoosuc Notch for the past year and a half, you might have noticed that Americans aren’t exactly getting along these days. From Facebook browsing to family dinners, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep bitter political arguments from cropping up and ruining a good time. But I’m here to offer you hope. No, really, I have a solution. Now, I can’t make your Facebook friends hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but there is one topic of conversation that just might be your secret weapon to uniting the people around you.
A recent poll, conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project and led by Democratic and Republican consultants alike, measured the attitudes of voters in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
Poll results showed that, despite the seemingly endless morass of political vitriol on social media, most people surveyed agree that public lands should be preserved and protected.
America’s national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and public lands are as much a part of our national identity as baseball and apple pie. These sanctuaries were created so that all Americans, regardless of wealth or social status, could enjoy access to the great outdoors in perpetuity and are, in my opinion (which I stole from documentarian Ken Burns), “America’s Best Idea.” Unfortunately for Ken and me, not everyone seems to agree.
On January 24, 2017, a bill was introduced to the House Committee on Natural Resources by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) ordering the Secretary of the Interior to sell or dispose of more than 3.3 million acres (roughly the size of Connecticut) of public land. The bill would also open the door to sales of other lands.
When the bill was introduced, Chaffetz said the land served “no purpose for taxpayers.” The public disagreed. Upon introduction of H.R. 621, Chaffetz’ office, Facebook and Instagram accounts were flooded with angry protests from outdoor enthusiasts spanning the political spectrum. Hunters, anglers, hikers, bikers, climbers, and campers were incensed, so much so that Chaffetz quickly withdrew the bill and took to the modern American podium, Twitter, to apologize, tweeting, “I am withdrawing HR 621. I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands.”
The about-face was remarkable and largely unprecedented, especially given the fact that Chaffetz had introduced the bill twice before, with little to no backlash. So what changed?
First, the former administration would have certainly vetoed the bill. And further, Chaffetz would have had a hard, if not impossible, time demonstrating – as the old law required – that each parcel of land sold, would make the taxpayer more money than it would cost to sell. But again, unless you’ve been under a rock, you know that the former administration is now parasailing with Richard Branson.
In January, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) spearheaded a rule change that ordered the Congressional Budget Office to assess federal land transfer at no cost, no matter the net gain or loss to the taxpayer. In other words, Congress could pass a bill that gives away taxpayer assets, without having to offset the loss in the budget. This new system, coupled with uncertainty surrounding our new administration, rendered Chaffetz’ reintroduced bill far more ominous, catalyzing the ensuing firestorm of grassroots political action.
As an admitted environmentalist, I wish, in my most fantastical of fantasies, that all public lands everywhere could be preserved indefinitely. But there are lands that could, arguably, be sold to the public’s benefit… but that, right there, that word “benefit,” that’s the whole point. Chaffetz and Congress have to show that what they propose is in the public interest. H.R. 621 certainly didn’t make that case.
The Fight Continues
The rescission of H.R. 621 was heralded as a victory by outdoor enthusiasts. And I think I can speak for both Ken Burns and myself when I say it certainly was! But, as the saying goes, we won the battle, not the war.
For example, in Montana, state Sen. Jennifer Fielder plans to introduce two resolutions: one to study public land transfer to the state and the other to promote public land transfers to the state. If passed, these resolutions would give the impression that Montana supports public land transfers and provide ammunition to politicians everywhere who are pushing for the same thing.
In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Mirkowski is sponsoring legislation to open the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas development. Although the coastal plain in question is not the apex of Alaskan beauty, it is a vital nursery for polar bears, muskoxen and the vast Porcupine Caribou Herd. Migratory birds from all 50 states nest there. Few people visit, but the coastal plain is part of a refuge that’s the very definition of wilderness: no roads, no campgrounds, not even any established trails. Environmental groups are planning strategies to keep drill rigs out.
In D.C., Congress is working to eliminate rules that increase public involvement in land management, rolling back federal support for the EPA and laws that protect wildlife habitat and undermining the Antiquities Act.
And finally, H.R. 622, introduced by our dear old friend Jason Chaffetz, would eliminate federal land law enforcement officers in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, potentially affording poachers and illegal polluters better opportunities to use public lands while also diminishing public safety.
The National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management manage lands for a multitude of purposes and the BLM alone generates roughly $5 billion in revenue every year. Our national wildlife refuges provide critical habitat for migratory birds and endangered species. And our national parks host more than 300 million visitors a year allowing them the opportunity to experience iconic landscapes like the geyser basins of Yellowstone and the towering peaks of Yosemite. The Appalachian Trial itself passes through a kaleidoscope of state and national parks, forests and public lands, all of which are vulnerable to the new congressional agenda.
Our congressmen and women were elected by us, for us. They are to represent our interests, not the interests of those with the deepest pockets. When they fail in this duty, as Jason Chaffetz did, it is vital that we hikers, kayakers, hunters, mountain bikers and anglers remind them of this responsibility.
So, whether you’re on the front lines of the twitter wars over Kellyanne Conway’s latest belt buckle or you’ve been hiding out with your jet boil under a Mahoosuc Notch of denial, if you value your public lands, please take the time to call, write or email your representatives today.
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Good read! I like to hike to escape politics, but there are times when it’s important to know what’s going on, for the sake of the resources we love.
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