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 TrumpPentagon authorizes B in counter-drug money for Trump's border wall Elizabeth Warren after TMZ catches her sprinting to catch train: 'Try and keep up' GOP governor criticizes Trump's 'dangerous rhetoric' about the media 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 ChaffetzLawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay Top Utah paper knocks Chaffetz as he mulls run for governor: ‘His political career should be over’ Boehner working on memoir: report 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 WaldenThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration House GOP lawmaker says Green New Deal is like genocide Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — FDA issues proposal to limit sales of flavored e-cigs | Trump health chief gets grilling | Divisions emerge over House drug pricing bills | Dems launch investigation into short-term health plans 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 PearceThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority The legal scandal that no one is talking about Dem governors on 2020: Opposing Trump not enough MORE’s (R-N.M.) constituents; and 62 percent of Rep. Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Lynn Herrera BeutlerThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration 13 House Republicans who bucked Trump on emergency declaration House votes to overturn Trump's emergency declaration 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.