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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The bill Curtis was referencing, H.R. 4532, is an attempt to codify President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Ann Coulter blasts Trump shutdown compromise: ‘We voted for Trump and got Jeb!’ 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 ChaffetzTop Utah paper knocks Chaffetz as he mulls run for governor: ‘His political career should be over’ Boehner working on memoir: report Former GOP lawmaker on death of 7-year-old migrant girl: Message should be ‘don't make this journey, it will kill you' 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 GianforteHere are the lawmakers who will forfeit their salaries during the shutdown GOP lawmakers push Trump to take ‘any appropriate action’ to save Keystone XL 'Murphy Brown' episode focuses on assault of reporter at Trump rally MORE (R-Mont.);56 percent of Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHillicon Valley: Republicans demand answers from mobile carriers on data practices | Top carriers to stop selling location data | DOJ probing Huawei | T-Mobile execs stayed at Trump hotel as merger awaited approval House Republicans question mobile carriers on data practices On The Money: Trump says he won't declare emergency 'so fast' | Shutdown poised to become longest in history | Congress approves back pay for workers | More federal unions sue over shutdown MORE’s (R-Ore.) constituents; 58 percent of Rep. Scott TiptonScott R. TiptonWhen it comes to drone tech, wildfire officials need the rights tools for the job Americans want to protect public lands, Congress should listen Two GOP Reps questioned by Israeli police during visit to holy site: report MORE’s (R-Colo.) constituents; 63 percent of Rep. Steve PearceStevan (Steve) Edward PearceDem governors on 2020: Opposing Trump not enough Election Countdown: Recount prospects grow in Florida | Abrams team to sue over absentee ballots | Dem wins pivotal Georgia House seat | A look at the uncalled races | Corporations spend big to beat ballot measures Torres Small flips New Mexico House seat for Dems MORE’s (R-N.M.) constituents; and 62 percent of Rep. Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Lynn Herrera BeutlerLatest funding bill to reopen the government fails in House On The Money: Trump says he won't declare emergency 'so fast' | Shutdown poised to become longest in history | Congress approves back pay for workers | More federal unions sue over shutdown Overnight Energy: House votes to reopen Interior, EPA | Dems question EPA over Wheeler confirmation prep | Virginia Dem backs Green New Deal 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.