How the West was lost?
© WildEarth Guardians

From Western state legislatures to the halls of the U.S. Senate, there is a movement afoot to sell off our Western public lands.

The Utah legislature has passed a bill seeking to seize National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Wildlife Refuges and other public property and transfer title to the states. In Wyoming, a similar bill passed the lower chamber, while a pilot program to test implementation was adopted and signed into law. And last month in the U.S. Senate, an amendment to enable a sell-off of Western public lands passed 51-49 in a largely party-line vote during the budget vote-a-rama.

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Nevermind that these vast open spaces, America's last best natural playground and a last bastion of healthy ecosystems, is overwhelmingly popular both at home and abroad. Americans love their Western public lands, their wildlife, their scenic beauty, their sense of remoteness and adventure. But these lands that once nobody wanted for homesteading are now coveted by energy corporations and real estate developers looking to make a fast buck without those troublesome "multiple use" mandates and environmental review laws that apply on federal land.

State governments are in no position to manage such vast quantities of real estate. Most lack laws and regulations that require public input, the weighing of environmentally responsible alternatives or a "look before you leap" approach that is graven in federal law. In the absence of any requirement for wise use and sustainability, state ownership of these lands would be an environmental disaster.

But it would be short-lived. The sad reality is that if the federal government transfers public lands to the states, most public lands would be sold off to the highest bidder. Look what happened east of the Mississippi. The public domain, once wild and free, would sprout "no trespassing" signs and would be used up without compunction in the biggest land grab the West has seen since the Homestead Act.

Stop by a Western scenic overlook and you're likely to hear foreign accents in every crowd, tourists from faraway continents where nature has all but disappeared before the tide of habitat conversion to domesticated landscapes. In Africa, those scenes in nature documentaries where open savannas are thronged with herds of migrating wildebeests and zebras are, in reality, tiny islands of nature is a desolate sea of urban sprawl and wasteland grazed down to bare dust.

Wild nature is in scarcer and scarcer supply these days, everywhere on the planet. In the American West, we still have a wealth of it. To corporate boosters and far-right politicians, it's a waste of space unless we wring from it every last dollar we can.

There are those who would argue that humanity has desecrated so much of the natural world that we should give up protecting what's left and domesticate it instead as "working landscapes."

They're wrong, both morally and logically. Here's why.

From the moral standpoint, the American West is one of the last places where we have whole ecosystems, stressed to be sure by human activities, but still home to spectacular beauty and replete with a diversity of native plants and wildlife and ruled by natural processes. Healthy and functioning nature has intangible and priceless value in its own existence. Our wants and needs don't trump the natural world's right to exist and thrive.

If we lose these natural systems, we'll never be able to put them back together with all the science and advanced technology at our disposal. As a scientist, I'm here to tell you: We're just not that smart, or that knowledgeable, that we can succeed at tinkering with the workings of natural systems, much less rebuild them. So we have a moral duty to protect and foster the wild nature that remains, and to help the planet heal from the scars we've inflicted.

For the logical standpoint, the value of Western public lands is immeasurable. Sure, you could try to encapsulate this into dollars and cents, into economic outputs and ecosystem services. But it's an unnecessary exercise: As the human population expands, and wild country is reduced, the value of public lands is constantly increasing according to the law of supply and demand. Should we then sell off our inherited public domain to the highest bidder, so it can be used up for short-term profit and then cast aside? Or is the smart money on keeping it in public ownership and in healthy condition, there for all Americans as its value skyrockets?

Economic development has a dollar value. Nature is priceless.

The original Americans got it right the first time. "The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all," said Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem who greeted the first Plymouth Colony pilgrims. "How can one man say it belongs only to him?"

Today, holding our public lands in trust for the benefit of all Americans is the closest we have come to embodying this wisdom. It would be a tragic loss for all Americans in their colorful and myriad forms — hunters, hikers, rockhounds, anglers, equestrians, birdwatchers, plein air artists — if we allow a cabal of ravenous corporations and wrongheaded politicians to seize it for themselves and lay it all to waste.

This land is, after all, your land. For now, at least.

Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.