Public lands can unite a house divided in 2020


An unsettling sense of division has become the norm in America with the skies only darkening ahead as the 2020 elections approach. A 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center shows that 65 percent of Americans believe the United States will only grow more politically divided over the next three decades.

The finger pointing, name calling and polarization apparent daily on social media and cable news has produced a fog of pessimism across the nation’s populace. But amidst these clouds of division stands a glimmer of bipartisan hope — an issue that has historically and is once again uniting diverse peoples towards a common cause.

Our nation’s public lands.

The public land exception

While there’s seemingly almost no political issue today on which our two political parties or their constituents can agree, America’s 640+ million acres of federally protected public lands represent a shining exception. Places like Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the forests and wilderness areas that surround them.

Nearly 9 in 10 voters say it is extremely important or quite important for the federal government to protect and support national parks, according to one 2012 survey. Another found that more than three-quarters of voters believe that “protecting and preserving the nation’s history and natural beauty through national parks, forests, and other public lands is one of the things the government does best.” And a 2019 Conservation in the West poll found that more than two-thirds of voters in western states, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, believe that Congress should emphasize conservation on national public land.

Our nation’s shared landscape — of which we are all co-owners — brings together gun-owning hunters and vegan backpackers, Republican fly-fishermen and Democratic mountain bikers, rural ranchers and urban bird watchers. All enjoying the same places in their own individual ways.  With such a diverse array of stakeholders taking interest in public lands, disagreements regarding their management are inevitable. But recent events have shown a user base willing to set aside petty differences and political labels in the interest of their shared interest — the long-term viability of these wild places.

“We all can agree on well protected public lands. We all want to be able to get outside and have our kids experience the same things that we experienced,” said Whit Fosburgh, President of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a video promoting collaboration between outdoor user groups. “The differences are artificial and manufactured to keep us divided.”

In a nation increasingly pulled apart at its seams, the bipartisan movement coalescing around public lands today stands as an encouraging departure from the norm and a blueprint for how our nation might once again learn to work together towards a better future.

Unity breeds results

On Jan. 24, 2017 U.S. Rep Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced a bill calling for the sale of 3.3 million acres of public lands. The proposal was met with nearly unanimous opposition across all public land user groups.  From every political party, outdoor recreation cohort, and region of the country American men and women stood up against the sale of these lands. Letters were written, phone calls were made, emails and tweets were drafted. All of this was done at such a velocity and with such intensity that by Feb. 2, the Republican congressman was forced to make an about face. That day Rep. Chaffetz posted on Instagram, “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands. . . . I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”

Fast-forward just over two years later and bipartisan support once again led to a monumental win for the nation’s shared real estate. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a crucial public lands program, had been allowed to expire the previous autumn — potentially eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars typically allocated towards public land projects across the country. Once again a diverse and bipartisan coalition of advocates activated, led by representatives from as diverse a set of groups as Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and the Sierra Club. After months of haranguing from both sides of the aisle the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act was passed with a sweeping bipartisan majority, a piece of legislation that is now recognized as one of the most impactful public land bills passed in decades. It was a shocking bipartisan success considering the deeply partisan debates ongoing at the same time around the government shutdown, immigration and international trade.

What we can learn

What common thread can be pulled from these examples?

Quite simply, it comes down to people. People willing to make the radical choice to step outside of their comfort zone and extend a hand across the aisle, across the nation, across cultures. Something extraordinary happens when voters assert themselves as Americans first, rather than Democrats or Republicans, and join hand in hand with others different from themselves.

The mostly fiercely debated issues of our time — economic policy, climate change, immigration, health care and so on — are increasingly split by party line with little meaningful dialogue happening in the middle.

When Republican senators hear complaints only from Democrats it’s easy to turn a deaf ear. When Democratic representatives are bombarded by angry Republicans, it’s politically convenient to carry on in service of their base. But what terrifies a politician into action more than anything else is an inbox overflowing with demands from all of the above.

Campers, climbers, hunters, anglers, wildlife watchers and ATVers have stumbled upon a secret weapon in American politics. The power of dialogue, compromise, and civility despite partisanship. The result has been landmark progress towards the protection of our nation’s public lands, despite significant business and political forces working against them.

Is this idea revolutionary? Not at all. But to actually do it is.

This cross-culture collaboration, just like the idea of a shared public land system, is radical. It’s subversive. It’s American.

Mark Kenyon has a new book out called “That Wild Country: An Epic Journey through the Past, Present, and Future of America’s Public Lands.”