For many families, spring means one thing: spending more time outdoors. Few outdoor experiences rival hiking, fishing, hunting, or wildlife watching on public lands. And where only a tiny fraction of Americans own large tracts of land or have access to private hunt clubs, for the vast majority of Americans public lands provide nearly all outdoor recreational opportunities; they are the birthright of all Americans, as is often said and repeatedly affirmed by the Supreme Court. Our public lands are the envy of the world.
Yet, just as my 3-year old daughter Riley and I—and millions of other outdoor enthusiasts—are shaking off the long winter by getting outdoors, a growing assault on our nation’s public lands is under way at the state and federal levels. The attacks range from efforts to give states control and potentially privatize national public lands to blocking presidents’ ability to establish national monuments to bills selling public lands and repealing essential safeguards for our water, air, and wildlife.
Polls consistently show that Americans care about public lands and the environment and nowhere is that more true than in the very states where some state and federal lawmakers are targeting our outdoor heritage. A recent bipartisan survey by Colorado College shows that 96 percent of the voters in six Western states said protecting public lands for future generations is a priority and favor ensuring access to those lands for recreation.
Despite this strong public support, state legislatures throughout the Rocky Mountain West have spent the last several weeks and taxpayers’ money debating proposals that would harm wildlife, our public lands, and the local economies that depend on hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation, and tourism.
Now, the action is picking up in Congress where Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill Congress should reject H.R. 1619's dangerous anywhere, any place casino precedent Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills MORE (R-Alaska) recently successfully offered an amendment to the budget resolution that supported selling or turning over federal lands to the states. While it was a non-binding resolution, it’s a harbinger of battles ahead. Utah Reps. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R) and Chris StewartChris StewartOvernight Defense & National Security — Washington gathers for Colin Powell's funeral House Republican says as much as 40 percent of some intel agencies remain unvaccinated Two coaches charged with murder in basketball player's death after practice MORE (R) have formed a panel of House members to figure out how Congress can give federal lands to the states. Rep. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeSheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Texas New Members 2019 MORE (R-Texas) has introduced a bill that would require the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to open about a third of their land to sale.
And unlike state legislatures, Congress has the authority to alter the landscape of our public lands legacy.
In Bishop’s state of Utah, legislators passed a law demanding the federal government transfer title of federally managed lands and minerals to the state by Dec. 31, 2014. Despite obvious constitutional issues, other states are making similar demands. Takeover proponents argue the West is at an economic disadvantage because 30 percent or more of the land in most states is federally managed. They say giving states title to the lands will allow them to profit from them as they see fit.
However, states don’t have the resources to suddenly start managing tens of millions of acres of land. Taking on just the cost of fighting wildfires would be staggering. A report by the Center for Western Priorities shows that since 2001, the U.S. Forest Service has spent an average of $3.13 billion annually to protect Western communities from wildfire. To cover costs, public lands would undoubtedly be increasingly mined, drilled or logged, reducing public recreational access – or sold to the highest bidders.
The losses would reverberate throughout the U.S. economy. Outdoor recreation generates an estimated $646 billion annually in consumer spending nationwide. The Outdoor Industry Association reports that is nearly double what Americans spend annually in each of the following areas: pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles and parts, household utilities and gasoline and other fuels. The economic impacts are particularly big for communities that are gateways to national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and wilderness areas. Thousands of wildlife advocates, business owners, veterans and sportsmen and women have rallied in state capitals across the West and met with lawmakers to keep public lands in public hands.
The fallout wouldn’t be just economic. Our public lands belong to all Americans, no matter where they are. They are a fundamental part of our identity and constitute a shared legacy. Last year, all 49 state affiliates of the National Wildlife Federation unanimously approved a resolution affirming support for our public lands. Hunters, anglers, bird watchers, hikers and paddlers across the country know what’s at stake.
O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the country’s largest and oldest conservation organizations. Before joining NWF in 2014, he headed the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.