Who’s to say what Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir thought when they first saw Yosemite Valley but it probably wasn’t, “This place sure will foster a lot of economic growth!”
Public lands, the one thing on which we should all agree, is now political just like everything else. But why? Everyone from liberal hikers to conservative hunters will use them at some point, and millions of others explore our national parks, forests, and monuments every year.
But here we are, taking sides with or against an administration that has its own opinions on our public lands.
Where did it all start?
President Obama was a champion of the outdoors and its federal protection. He named several national monuments, such as Bears Ears, Utah, before leaving office, and he was extremely outspoken on the topic of public lands and its protection. No matter what you think of 44, there’s a laundry list of what he did for the outdoors.
Now we have a new president and, again, no matter what you love or hate about him, the new administration’s tone on public lands is different than the last. President Trump has never gone on record (or Twitter) to say explicitly that he wants to dismantle federally protected land, but the evidence of his actions are not reassuring. The President’s proposed 2018 budget calls for deep cuts to the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, and the president signed an executive order to review 27 U.S. national monuments, including Bears Ears in Utah.
But this all really started in early 2017 when Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced H.R. 621, which would have shifted federal land to state governments in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming. It didn’t go well. The bill made it easier for states to sell off those lands to private entities and the public wasn’t having it. Hikers and hunters alike made so much noise that Rep. Chaffetz quickly withdrew the bill before stepping down from office just a few months later.
Why are we so divided?
The outcry against H.R. 621 was bipartisan, but when Trump became the target of pushback against threats the outdoors, the gap widened between blue and red. Outdoors retailers are not shy in their criticism against President Trump, and both Patagonia and REI have explicitly called for its customers to challenge the Trump administration on public lands. Salt Lake City even lost the Outdoor Retailer trade show to Denver because of H.R. 621. The event generates roughly $45 million annually for the host city’s economy.
Let’s be real. Companies like Patagonia and REI do this because it’s great marketing and energizes an already-liberal base of customers. But that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t united on the issue. They understand that to stand up for public lands likely means to stand up against the administration.
What are politicians saying?
Even the most moderate conservatives do see the management of public lands differently than the left. I wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) after the 2016 election asking him not to support any legislation that would compromise federally-protected land. This was his response (emphasis mine):
As you know, Arizona is home to some of the world’s most beautiful natural scenery. Every year millions of tourists from around the world travel to my home state to marvel at the Grand Canyon or to enjoy our many hunting, fishing, and hiking opportunities. A great deal of outdoor recreation and economic development occurs on federal land, which generates many millions of dollars in economic activity and supports many thousands of jobs in Arizona each year.
In Arizona, the federal government owns over 40% of the land, including national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. Unfortunately, the expanding size of the federal estate and the restrictive regulations that apply to using federal property can also work against economic growth as well as environmental stewardship. For example, federal laws that restrict the Forest Service from bringing a viable timber industry to Arizona has hurt our state’s efforts to actively and responsibly thin our overgrown forests to reduce wildfire risk. As a result, wildfires have consumed over 20% of our states pine forests since 2002.
I believe we must strike a balance between managing our public lands for multiple-use, including conservation, while giving local governments more authority to foster economic activity within their boundaries. Please be assured that I will keep your thoughts in mind when legislation affecting federal land is considered in the Senate.
What Sen. McCain (or more likely, one of his staffers) is saying sounds good, but he’s mixing two different messages:
- Arizona should have more authority to regulate a timber industry that can better prevent wildfires, and
- Arizona should have more authority to foster economic growth on Arizona public land.
If number one is true, I’m all for it. But what does any of that have to do with number two? Wildfires are a real threat (and currently ravaging Arizona forests as I type this) but the supposed incompetency of federal organizations sounds like a scare tactic. And as for economic growth, we’ve already seen what that can look like in even the most protected areas like the Grand Canyon.
What are the trolls saying?
Oh god, what aren’t they saying? The discourse devolved to its lowest point when companies such as REI and Patagonia started calling out President Trump. Say what you will about his supporters, but they know how to make some noise. I simply mentioned Patagonia in a post about its used clothing website and received comments like this on the 9 to 5 Hiker Facebook page:
LL Bean and Columbia are fine companies, and they do make great clothes, but to suggest that any company is a “true American loving patriot” is just bizarre. This is what the conversation has come down to. It doesn’t matter who enjoys the outdoors, it just matters which side you’re on.
Where does that leave us?
There’s no reaching the trolls, so don’t even try. But there is one key group can help us change the conversation—hunters and fishers— and H.R. 621 is a perfect example of this. Most people think of national parks and monuments in the public lands debate, but lands governed by the Bureau of Land Management make up the biggest chunk of public lands in the country. And these are the lands used most for hunting and fishing. If you want to bring conservatives to the other side of the debate, these are the lands we should be talking about.
Call your congressmen, your governors, vote for politicians who support the federal protection of these lands, and buy from companies that support those same goals. Yes, public lands is a political issue, but it doesn’t have to be. Help protect your lands through both Republican and Democratic administrations and they may be around for generations to come.
Remember, you are the public in public lands.
I have disabled the comments for this article because, well, the trolls. Please comment on this post in the 9 to 5 Hiker Facebook page.