Americans want to protect public lands, Congress should listen

Americans want to protect public lands, Congress should listen
© Josh Ewing

Political doublespeak is often the name of the game in Congress. So when a politician slips up and says something they otherwise typically obfuscate about , it provides a rare window into what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) is learning this the hard way. Recently, Curtis admitted to his constituents that an anti-public lands bill that he is sponsoring is “not getting much support” and “may die.” He added, “everyone is mad at this bill.”

Typically, politicians don’t let on that their unpopular initiatives are indeed unpopular. But Curtis’ comments underscore the extent to which politicians are aware that Americans favor preserving public lands for future generations, and that selling out national monuments for the fossil fuel industries is as politically unpopular as it is unscrupulous. 

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The bill Curtis was referencing, H.R. 4532, is an attempt to codify President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE’s action to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 85 percent .

 

In addition to shrinking Bears Ears, Trump reduced the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half — together with Bears Ears’ reduction representing the largest rollback of public land protections in U.S. history. The administration has now proposed shrinking or modifying nearly a dozen of other monuments across the West. The Interior Department is also axing regulations to protect iconic public lands from oil and gas drilling, and millions of acres are being opened up to uranium mining activity. 

Curtis’ admission that his bill is so toxic that he may have to rescind it should portend legislative trouble for the anti-public lands crusade this Congress is pursuing and send a warning signal to his colleagues that Americans want their public lands protected and expanded, not sold to special interests. 

Curtis’ constituents have taken note of his attack on public lands. Several Native American tribes and local Utah constituent groups have come out forcefully against the bill. Curtis could have easily seen this coming. Just last year, former Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzRepublicans spend more than million at Trump properties House Dems seek to make officials feel the pain Lawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay MORE (R-Utah), who Curtis replaced after he resigned, was forced to withdraw a proposed bill that would have transferred millions of acres of protected land to state ownership. Chaffetz acknowledged that he rescinded the bill because of “objections from constituents.”

The backlash to Curtis’ bill is, no surprise. Westerners across several states are in favor of protecting public lands and oppose efforts to shrink or sell off national monuments. Recent polling shows that efforts to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are opposed by 61 percent of Montanans represented by Rep. Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteJournalists seek federal, state support for right to inform the public Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo criticize Trump’s response to Coast Guard lieutenant's arrest Sarah Sanders: Trump hasn't ‘at any point’ done anything but ‘condemn violence against journalists' MORE (R-Mont.);56 percent of Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access Here are the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats on the Equality Act House approves anti-LGBT discrimination Equality Act MORE’s (R-Ore.) constituents; 58 percent of Rep. Scott TiptonScott R. TiptonHouse Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 When it comes to drone tech, wildfire officials need the rights tools for the job Americans want to protect public lands, Congress should listen MORE’s (R-Colo.) constituents; 63 percent of Rep. Steve PearceStevan (Steve) Edward PearceNew Mexico Dems brace for crowded race to succeed Udall The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority The legal scandal that no one is talking about MORE’s (R-N.M.) constituents; and 62 percent of Rep. Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Lynn Herrera BeutlerDems push to revive Congress' tech office Bill allowing Congress to hire Dreamers advances House fails to override Trump veto on border wall MORE’s (R-Wash.) constituents.

Westerners want public lands protected and strongly believe in balancing energy development with protecting the Western way of life. They want their kids and grandkids to be able to hunt and fish on the same lands where they did, and they want drilling and mining to happen on public lands that are more appropriate for those purposes — not in protected monuments.   

Additionally, according to a new report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, outdoor recreational activities like hunting and fishing on public lands provide more of an economic contribution than do mining activities, including oil and gas drilling. Politicians no longer can flippantly dismiss the need to protect public lands in the name of mining, oil and gas.

Curtis’ slip-up is an implicit acknowledgment that anti-public lands positions are politically untenable and at odds with what voters want. It’s time for politicians in Washington to stop attacking public lands and national monuments, and instead do something good for the communities that have come to enjoy these protected public lands. If Curtis was telling the truth — that his bill is so disliked that he may have to pull it — he should do just that and start anew, with his constituents’ commitment to preserving public lands in mind.

Chris Saeger is the executive director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based watchdog group taking a government accountability approach to public lands issues.