If you’re an outdoors lover, you ought to be celebrating right now.
We saw a big victory for democracy last week in the fight over public lands.
It all started earlier this year when Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz tabled a bill called H.R. 621. The bill’s goal was to sell off a ‘small’ parcel of public land from ten different states in the West – to the tune of 3.3 million acres.
Fortunately things didn’t go the way he’d planned. There was a huge outcry from the outdoors community. And not just environmentalists, but hunters, hikers, backcountry campers, and perhaps most importantly, outdoors companies that thrive off a customer base who uses the lands.
They united together in protest, both in person and online, posting under the hashtag #keepitpublic as a signal to the government that they didn’t support selling their land to the highest bidder.
Their outcry was heard. Once Chaffetz realized it wasn’t just whiny Democrats who were against the bill, but his own voter base that was rallying against it, he withdrew it.
It was a huge victory for the American people, helped along by celebrities like hunting icon Steve Rinella, and UFC commentator Joe Rogan, who is an avid hunter and outdoorsman, and who tweeted this:
“Short-sighted politicians are proposing selling off our public lands. Don't let it happen.”
Rinella also spoke out, urging his readers – predominantly hunters and outdoors lovers, a majority of whom likely voted Republican – to call their Congressman and say no to H.R. 621.
Social media seems to have played a big part in the victory. And while everyone is breathing a collective sigh of relief, no one doubts for a second that the battle is over.
In fact this is just the latest jab in a long fight over public lands.
To understand things better, it’ll help if we hop back a few years.
You may recall a man named Theodore Roosevelt, better known as Teddy. After Teddy became president he took stock of what was happening to land in America, and didn’t like what he saw: greedy corporate interests trying to suck up huge tracts of land in order to make a profit.
He was no money-hating-hippy, but he felt it was possible to achieve something like ‘responsible growth.’ He thought it important to set aside land for the future generations, who he referred to as still inside “the womb of time,” and designated 230-million acres as public land to be maintained by the government and kept safe for the use of the American people.
Hard to see anything wrong with that, unless you’re a rich industrialist who wants to use the land for profit without any thought to those future generations.
You may recall learning about the ‘robber barons,’ in history class, industrialists who didn’t care much for conservation or even ‘responsible growth.’ They haven’t disappeared. Huge corporations are just as hungry for that land now as they were then, and they have plenty of powerful friends trying to help them.
We don’t want to get all political, but with an issue like public lands it’s impossible not to.
The fact is, while Teddy himself was a Republican, it’s generally been the Republican Party who now wants to privatize the lands. And they’re not trying to hide that fact.
Actually it’s written right into their platform, which you can find online:
“We assert that private ownership has been the best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while some of the worst instances of degradation have occurred under government control.”
They also included this little gem:
“The environment is too important to be left to radical environmentalists.”
Point 1 for the Republican Party, because who ever thought it would be a good idea to leave the environment to a bunch of environmentalists?
There is an element of truth to this, though. The country faces real energy needs, and environmentalists might not be the best people to decide how and when natural resources should be divided out.
But it seems the biggest risk isn’t in leaving the land to environmentalists, but in leaving it to State control. As former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell noted in her interview with Outside Online, most states can’t even afford the firefighting bills for that much land. A full 42% of their yearly federal budget of $5.5 billion is used for fighting fires, basically guaranteeing that states would eventually sell the land off to private interests.
This isn’t some fringe liberal belief. In fact, it’s shared by current President Donald Trump. When he was interviewed by Outdoor Life magazine at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show back in 2016, he had this to say about giving public land ownership to the states:
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do with it. Are they going to sell as soon as they get into a little trouble? I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land.”
The President shares the concern that, given the chance, states would likely sell the land when money got tight – and from the looks of Bill H.R. 621, they might not even wait that long.
Trump said all this with his oldest son Don next to him, who jumped in later to add his own enthusiasm for hunting and outdoor life.
“Hunting and fishing kept me out of so much other trouble I would’ve gotten into throughout my life.”
Trump shows a soft spot for his kids, which he demonstrated when he came to the defense of his daughter Ivanka after Nordstrom and other stores decided to stop carrying her clothing line. Whether this means Donald Jr. will have the president’s ear on the public land matter is hard to tell, but it’s reason enough to hope.
Normally this would send a clear signal to anyone worried about public land sale that the President is happy to keep them public. But his approach to environmental regulation is often dizzyingly unclear, a trait shared by his pick for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.
Zinke shows no sign of wanting to shift federally owned public lands to the states, quoted once as saying:
“I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public lands.”
Again this should be re-affirming, but it's not evidence that we can tune out of the fight yet. Zinke is a big fan of oil, gas, and all the drills and pipes required to make them profitable. His environmental Lifetime Approval Rating (yeah, that’s a thing) from the League of Conservation is 3%, which is low even for a Republican. As a reference, Obama has a lifetime approval of 72%, even though he wasn’t always their favorite and dipped as low as 18% in some years.
Trump himself is known for being a world-class climate change denier. Recently he took away twitter privileges from the National Parks Service (NPS) when they started posting facts and data about climate change after Trump took office, another bad sign for environmentalists worried about what this administration will do.
Silencing an important arm of the NPS doesn’t bode well for environmentalists, but it might not be time to cast Trump as the Sith Lord of Environmental Destruction just yet. There’s good evidence that the real reason he took the NPS’s social media toys away was because the NPS retweeted pictures of the… sizeable crowd at his inauguration.
Again, the jury is out on what this means for private lands. Is Trump an environmentalist? Goodness gracious no, and neither is his pick for Secretary of the Interior. They’re both lovers of the energy industry, not the renewable kind, and are doing everything in their power to help streamline the approval process for big, environment killing projects. But from all the evidence we’ve seen, they aren’t keen on the idea of selling lands off or allowing the states to.
(One thing is for sure though, the inauguration was great. Huge success. Everybody thought it was successful, and the crowd was gigantic. Biggest crowd in a while, and trust me, we’ve seen a lot of crowds. No question about the crowd size. Huge.)
But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Trump was once firmly against accepting Koch Brother’s money, even ousting them on Twitter (where else?). Now through a web of political influence he’s slowly becoming more intimate with the Texas industrialists. And if anyone invites comparison to those early American ‘robber barons,’ it’s the Koch brothers.
The one surprising thing about H.R. 621 and it’s less repulsive cousin 622, was the way people banded together to say ‘no.’ Historically Americans have been just as divided on the outdoors as they have on everything else. Hikers and paddlers sporting North Face gear and saluting the sun have long been lined up on the Democratic side, while rifle-toting hunters have, like Teddy before them, been traditionally Republican.
But this bill and tags like #keepitpublic showed the ability of American’s to put aside political differences in the face of a formidable foe, such as a bill set to take away the land they all love.
Steve Bullock, a Montana Governor, put everyone’s thoughts into a few simple words when he said:
“This ain’t about politics. Whether you’re a Democrat, or Republican, or Libertarian, or vegetarian, these lands belong to you.”
In other words, it’s time for hikers, hunters, and animal lovers alike to realize the one thing they all share, the land, is at stake.
America has a unique relationship with public land. There’s nowhere else in the world where such huge tracts of land are available to the people - no, owned by the people. That’s right, as an American you are the official owner of some 640 million acres of land. You can go there anytime you want for all the hiking, fishing, camping, hunting, or Pokémon Go you could want. That’s a beautiful thing, and Americans have tuned into that fact. Actually they’ve known it for a long time.
Even back as far as 2013, a survey by the Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project found that 67% of people opposed the sale of public lands.
Opinions on both sides of the debate are strong, and sometimes disagreements over land use have led to violent clashes. In 2016 a group of armed militants marched into Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and held it hostage for over a month. Their goal was to convince the federal government to give up ownership of public lands to the states, ultimately because they wanted to use the land for cattle grazing. In the end the militants all surrendered to law officials, with one militant shot to death while being arrested.
Those who lashed out by occupying Malheur have a lot in common with the legislators currently trying to pass bills in order to sell off public land. The difference is those in government are less obvious about what they’re doing, and have a lot of money and media on their side to help distract you from the truth.
That’s why your voice is needed now more than ever. Don’t take the defeat of H.R. 621 as a sign to kick back and relax - take it as a sign that the battle has picked up.
You can expect more jabs like this to come in the future, although they may be more subtly designed - like bill H.R. 622, which aims to strip away law enforcement powers from the Forest Services. They’re positioning it as a tax break for locals, but the bill feels like an underhanded way of peeling another layer from the wall between those industrialist robber barons, and the wide open land Roosevelt saved for us.
Now is the time to take a stance, to voice your desire to keep chasing Pokémon, to keep hiking as far as the eye can see, to keep hunting game throughout the unfettered wilderness.
As we so often do, we’d like to leave off with another quote, this one from Teddy Roosevelt himself - the Republican hunter who knew where to draw the line between corporate greed and America’s birthright.
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
Banner image via BML on Flickr