This Land Was Your Land

Stacks of informative articles and level-headed opinion pieces have been written of late about our slinking progress toward wholesale public land transfer and the ongoing efforts to stop it. See Todd Tanner, Bob Marshall, Scott Willoughby, Ben Neary, Judith Kohler, Raph Graybill, and as always Hal Herring for particularly eloquent examples. What follows here will not be as civil. I am angry, and I am frightened. I believe that anyone who isn’t angry and frightened, isn’t paying attention. And I believe the time for polite discourse has passed.

Open-minded, well-informed consideration of every issue is critical to the functional health of any democracy. In fact I think the erosion of such vigorous debate in our society explains many of our current ills. But public lands transfer is not a topic on which reasonable adults can disagree. It’s not a “topic” at all. It is an attempted robbery – a bald-faced, unabashed, mass swindling of the first order. And the crooks have damn near pulled it off already.

Which would be difficult enough to swallow if it were just land at stake. Our public lands are our most economically valuable national asset, responsible for raking billions of dollars directly into the national coffers each year and supporting far more lucrative free market economic activity. We are literally talking about selling off 28% our country. But politicians’ hands have swept mankind’s pockets ever since we outbred the hunter-gatherer clan structure, maybe longer. What’s a few hundred million more acres pilfered from the people?

It’s not about the land or the money though. What’s ultimately at stake here is a way of life. Who we are as a nation, how we live as a people and what it means to be American have all sprouted from the public soil of our great republic. Public land is the bedrock on which our national mythology is built. The cowboys, mountain men and pioneers wouldn’t have existed without public land. Huckleberry Finn is a public land story, as are Call of the Wild, Lonesome Dove, and A River Runs Through It. Don’t Fence Me In and America the Beautiful were written about a landscape with equal access for all. Public lands put the Wild in the Wild West. Our spirit of exploration and adventure is inexorably tethered to the distant horizon and predicated on the freedom to cross the ground in between. Without public land, hunting, fishing, hiking and camping are reduced to commercial transactions and restricted to those who can afford them. Are we still American without room in America to roam?

Surely, nothing so central to our economy, identity and lifestyle could be genuinely threatened by the people who represent us. Maybe in some backwater banana republic or former Soviet state, but such gross injustice, such shameless theft could never happen here, right?

One would think. But I’m here to tell you the barbarians are at the gate, they are coming for what you hold dear, and they are winning. With the passage of SA 838, 51 United States Senators have thrown down the gauntlet, spit in your eye, and made their intentions clear. They are rewriting the laws to take your land. Their threat is real, and it is really happening. We can probably count on the current administration to thwart a land grab for the next eighteen months, but who knows after the next election? Particularly if such brazen disregard for the public interest goes unpunished.

And let us be clear. We are being disregarded. The Senators and state governments who’ve led us down this path to the brink of unthinkable calamity know exactly what they’re doing. They are not stupid and they are not misinformed. There has been no misunderstanding of American sentiment. They just don’t care. They don’t care because they’ve sized us up, taken our measure and deemed us impotent. Maybe they figure we’re scared enough of the long promised, but never quite materializing, gun-snatching Bogeyman that we won’t dare abandon their protection. Maybe they figure we’re so absorbed in Netflix and Clash of Clans that we’ve lost track of the real world. Maybe they’ve just done the math and decided we’re already beaten…

STS Index: Our Public Lands

Acres of federal public land in the United States: 640,000,000

U.S. public land owners: 320,590,000

Hunters and anglers who rely on public land: 69%

Westerners who’ve used public lands in the last year: 95%

Annual outdoor recreation economy supported by public lands: $646 billion

Jobs supported by public lands recreation: 6,100,000

Sportsmen’s groups & outdoor businesses that oppose transfer: 114

Western voters (the supposed beneficiaries of transfer) opposing sell-off: 67%

Senators who voted to open the door to wide-scale divestment of public land: 51

State governments who’ve moved to “reclaim” federal public land: 7

Politicians voted from office for supporting sell-off efforts: 0

I have to admit it. So far, from their perspective, the math looks pretty sound. I could pile-up reams of compelling numbers, in fact, the much more capable professionals at the National Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Colorado College already have. But at this point, there’s really only one calculation that carries weight. Unless the big fat zero at the end of the above list changes, the behavior of our elected officials won’t change either.

I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia USA and with my first squalling breath I inherited one million square miles of the most beautiful real estate on planet earth– boom, a geo-genetic jackpot winner just like every other natural-born American citizen. I can wander where I choose, hunt in the hills, fish in the rivers, lose myself in the mountains or find myself in the desert. Millions of naturalized immigrants earned these rare and precious privileges with the sweat of their brow. Millions more Americans have defended them with the blood in their veins. Now, regardless of our previous paths, we’re all facing the same question. Will our kids know these same freedoms or will they become disenfranchised visitors on someone else’s property?

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

It does for now. If we don’t start making a lot more noise though, we’ll need to rewrite that land part pretty damn quick.

“O’er the holdings of the corporations?”

“O’er the real-estate portfolios of the 1%?”

I don’t know, neither sounds like where the brave live to me.

So please, get on the phone. Tell your elected officials they need to fix this – all of them. Follow that call with a letter… or three. Then get back on the phone and ask your friends, family, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Sign the Sportsmen’s Access Petition. Hold a rally. Wave placards. Go to the next town hall meeting and speak your mind. Demand to know where candidates for public office stand on our public lands. Keep score.

Then vote your conscience.

33 Comments on “This Land Was Your Land

    • Thanks for reading Schaaf. We usually keep a more or less even keel on STS, but sometimes the fired-up just has to come out.

  1. I’ve been hammering my Senator (Toomey, PA) with emails, calls, FB posts for nearly three weeks now. Not one response. As much as it pains me to say, they don’t care. It comes down to $$$ and the oil, gas, timber, etc. companies have a lot of it.

    • I’ve been there… frustrating. He cares about votes though, and sharing your experience and frustrations with others now could well get his attention in November.

    • Getting a response from our Senators in Wyoming is more frustrating than not getting one at all! Gotta keep hammering them all the same.

      • Thanks for speaking truth to power.
        I imagine I got the exact same response that you did. I’ll say this a..
        I disagree with their positions (in case that wasn’t clear). But I was surprised and pleased with the amount of explanatory information in Senator Enzi’s reply. Rarely does one of these responses ever actually SAY anything, e.g. Senator Barrasso’s reply. To Senator Enzi’s credit, he at least tried to explain and justify his stance with reasoning and points of law.
        So yeah… gotta keep hammering away.

        • I think we likely received the same responses based on talking with a few other folks and I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of substance. I doubt anyone in Wyoming was surprised by how our Senators voted on this issue but they need to know now, more than ever, that not everyone in the state thinks “Wyoming hands should manage [all] Wyoming lands.” Some things are worth getting fired up for and this is one of them. Thanks for the great post.

          • One thought Ross. There’s a bit of the old pass the buck going on of the “well we’re just following the lead of the state legislature” variety. Our senators are pretty darn comfortable with their prospects of reelection, and not without reason. Our state legislators aren’t in the same position. It’s important to reach out to them too, let them know that the state needs to back off, and that they need to personally reach out to our federal representatives.
            Thanks for fighting the good fight!

  2. Nice piece, Matt. So right that we have to change that zero. So far there have been zero consequences for their actions. Groups like NRA who claim to represent hunters need to take a five-minute break from gun rights and do something that will actually help hunters.

    • Thanks Russell. Yeah the whole look over here and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain routine is awfully frustrating.

  3. “But public lands transfer is not a topic on which reasonable adults can disagree. It’s not a “topic” at all. It is an attempted robbery – a bald-faced, unabashed, mass swindling of the first order.”

    Yep, it’s time to draw a line in the sand. Thanks, Matt. We will keep hammering Wyoming’s delegation. They have to made aware of the political cost of their intentions.

    • Thanks Jim. Lets make sure our state legislators are WELL aware too.

  4. This is a fantastic piece, thank you for writing it! I’ll be at the hearing at the Colo state capitol today (1:30, room 354) for the hearing on SB232.

  5. Great article. This has been deemed a western issue by sportsman but I don’t see anywhere in the writing where non western states would be excluded from the transfer. I know, if transferred to the states, the temptation to sell lake front properties that are currently undeveloped in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest will be great…especially with how politically overrun our DNR has become.

    • That’s a great point. While the seven states leading the land grab charge are all in the west, sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts everywhere stand to be deeply effected.
      Thanks for weighing in.

  6. Really sad to see this taking place. I’m pretty sure it’s been attempted before, but every time we need to knock it back down. Ranchislature in Wyoming runs deep, back to the days where there wasn’t a blade of grass within 15 miles of Cheyenne due to the cattle boom back around Wyoming’s early years. It’s not just the never ending mineral interests that lobby in this state, but the fact that a large amount of our representatives in state and local governments have deep ties to ranching, and they want those public lands for their cattle and sheep. This would likely lead to land and fence locking prime wildlife habitats as well. I’ve already had numerous negative run ins with welfare ranchers on public land who think they already own it. Let them own it, and game over for anyone that enjoys utilizing these beautiful, open, public spaces.

    • You’re absolutely right that this is not a new idea. States and special interests have made similar attempts in the past… and they’ll keep trying until it is crystal clear that such nonsense will not be tolerated by the voting public. Here in Wyoming our Senators are pretty comfortable with their reelection prospects. We still need to reach out to them, but it’s important that we have similar conversations with our state legislators too. The folks int he state house have a lot less wiggle room.
      Thanks for reading and for weighing in Nicolaus!

      • My mother had a recent facebook discussion with a newly minted state legislator, and he sent her an article that basically said the public outcry was a conspiracy by liberals who want to take our guns away. If that’s the overall mindset, similar conversations are going to be difficult.

        Not to mention the Federal Natural Resource Management Committee helped push this through recently on the state level. Basically 75K down the drain, as we already know their intentions. I’d be awfully surprised if the report came back with a negative outlook for state control. Guess we’ll see in 2016.
        http://legisweb.state.wy.us/2015/Summaries/SF0056.pdf

  7. Thanks for writing this! Thoughtful and eloquent prose for a passionate issue. I’m afraid the economic language that surrounds this debate and our wild places is one of our biggest problems. When we stop putting dollar signs and preserving “resources” and give these places the right to exist not because they’re pretty, have wildlife, or provide recreation (all these are valid reasons) but they have intrinsic value, that is when the wild will get the protection and respect it deserve. Can we stop making this issue so anthropocentric? I’m afraid this is a minority opinion in our current conservation ethic which is why I’m increasingly pessimistic about their preservation.

    • Thanks for weighing in. In this case the numbers are actually pretty compelling for our case but, I totally agree that not everything that counts can be counted.

  8. Has anyone approached the NRA about their support on this public lands takeover? Every western congressman/woman or state legislator understands the political clout of the NRA, they should be on our side against the takeover disaster!

    • Good question Art, and a couple of great points. The NRA should be with us on this, and they do wield enormous political clout. That said, in my experience, they focus pretty exclusively on second amendment issues. Unfortunately, that single minded approach is often pursued to the detriment of other important sportsmen and -women’s issues. I’d encourage you to reach out to your local NRA rep and ask for their help.

      • Good suggestion Matt,, I will attempt to contact our local and state reps. They should realize the support for the 2nd amendment here in the west is deeply tied to hunting. Without a place to hunt the desire for rifles, shotguns and handguns will taper off drastically. Maybe gun makers should pay attention to this attempted takeover as well!
        Thanks,
        Art Genzler

  9. I hear what you are saying, but I think there is more to this. First, the biggest problem going on is public lands that are CLOSED to access. Merely having land in the public trust does us limited good if we the people cannot enjoy it. Second, the government (read: we the people) cannot financially afford to manage much of the public land we have. This is what is leading to the access closures and much of the desire to sell off some public land. If the government (read: we the people) cannot afford to keep land open to reasonable public access, I do not see why it should own it. Anyone who wants to solve this problem is going to need to address the costs of managing public lands; lobby for laws that require government agencies to keep public lands open to access unless there is some justifiable reason not to (other than they do not have the funds to manage it); and convince taxpayers of the importance of preserving our freedom, open space and natural resources. Third, public/private land ownership is not a two-sided coin. In some cases there are creative solutions that can achieve public goals without the land having to be owned and maintained by the government. For example, government agencies could sell certain parcels AFTER putting conservation easements in place. That can insure that the land is not used in a detrimental manner (e.g., developed, etc.) after transfer. You could even write easements in ways that would require a subsequent owner to allow access to sportsman (similar to some of the voluntary SHARE programs in the west, except make it mandatory for anyone who acquires these parcels). You can also put easements on land requiring a subsequent landowner to maintain certain conditions. I hope you keep up the fight, but long-term success is going to depend on proposing creative solutions, not just pounding the table.

    • B,
      Thanks for reading and for weighing in. I have to disagree with you on all counts though.
      I live in Wyoming, a state that is nearly half public land. I encounter closures all the time… on state and private land, never on the BLM or Forest Service. That’s because by law Federal land is managed in the public interest with input from the public. The Forest Service or BLM are legally unable to close land without first soliciting extensive public opinion. They occasionally close an obsolete road, or retire a boat ramp, but that’s not the same as a closing access. It’s not a perfect system, but at least I get a say.
      There are, of course, large federal parcels here and throughout the west that we don’t have access to… areas that are “land locked” by private property. I think your easement idea is a good one. I’d love to start with those lands that are already fenced off by absentee owners. I won’t hold my breath.
      Regarding your assertion that we the people cannot afford to manage the land that we have, I have two issue.
      One, it’s too true that the federal land management agencies are desperately starved for funds. And yes, without adequate funding, they inevitably struggle. We the people do, however, have the ability to fund them adequately. We just choose not to do so. Or, more accurately who choose to elect senators and representative who choose not to do so. I find it interesting (read frustrating) that the politicians bemoaning the agencies’ budget woes are invariably the same ones who are standing on their fiscal throats.
      My second concern is more a matter of X’s and O’s. Numerous economic studies -most of them commissioned by the very states that are petitioning for the land – have demonstrated that taking over federal lands would bankrupt the states… by a wide margin.
      I’m all for private land ownership. I own some myself and hope I always do. Hat doesn’t mean we should dispose of the public resource though.
      I’m also all for creative solutions. In this case though I think we’re talking about a solution that’s gone looking for a problem. The only problem is that folks are trying to take what’s mine, and yours, and our kids and every other American’s.

    • Thanks Chris. And thanks for all of your hard work and leadership. Keep fighting the good fight!

  10. I suppose this is how the aboriginal people must feel about most of European colonization.

    The demands of unprecedented population growth threaten to swallow most of the wild lands. We must try to protect what little is left. If all else fails, perhaps a land conservancy group funded by interested stakeholders could buy up land — as a last resort.

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