Friday Classic | 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, Representatives 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, Trout Unlimited’s Public Lands 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.

5 Comments on “Friday Classic | This Land Was Your Land

  1. Matt – I agree with this so deep to the core. But, its not just about voting politicians out – because the next one will look at public lands in the same way. To them, these lands are an “untapped resource” rich in auctionable ‘value.’ I don’t think its time (yet) for Monkey Wrench’ing, but Abbey is appearing to be ridiculously prophetic:
    – “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders” and, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”
    We need to be vocal… more vocal about this. Not crazy zealot vocal, but relevant – like this piece – data-driven and principled.
    Keep it up.

    • Thanks Dan. I agree that voting out pro-transfer office holders is insufficient, but I do think it’s an important step. The next one’s may well have the same outlook, but their decisions will at least be informed by what happened to the last guy or gal. Think of it as institutional conditioning ala B.F. Skinner… if the pigeon gets zapped each time he pecks the red lever, well, pretty soon he learns to keep his nose outta there.

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