From the dusty washes near Bunkerville, Nevada, to polished marble offices along K Street in Washington, D.C., there is a radical cry to wrest our national forests and prairies away from public ownership.
That cry should alarm all Americans who cherish their freedom to hunt, fish and otherwise enjoy the great outdoors.
One of the many blessings of American citizenship is the fact that we, the people, own 450 million acres of national forest, rangeland, wildlife refuges and national parks. Some of these lands are famous, like Yellowstone National Park, while others are obscure “secret spots” and quiet getaways. They include trout streams, elk pastures, duck marshes, scenic drives and huckleberry patches.
Thanks to the foresight of leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, we have an outdoor heritage unmatched in any part of the world. Hunting and fishing is a cherished tradition for millions of American families, not a privilege reserved to the landed elites. Our system is the envy of the world and depends on keeping public lands in public hands.
■ Hunting, fishing and wildlife watching on national forests alone produce $1.7 billion in economic activity, tens of thousands of jobs, and $200 million in tax revenues. This is a sustainable, reliable stream of revenue for rural economies.
■ Our national forests support some 35 million days of hunting, fishing and wildlife watching annually.
■ Over 70 percent of sportsmen and women say they hunt and fish primarily on public land.
■ An estimated 90 percent of the elk in North America depend on national forests for their survival at least part of the year.
■ National forests and public lands provide the headwaters for our most cherished trout streams and clean water for all.
Our lives are richer for our public lands, both in terms of the economy and in ways that cannot be measured with an accountant’s calculator.
Land is wealth, so it’s no surprise that some special interests have their eyes on ours.
Last month, 60 elected officials from nine western states met in Utah to hear a lawyer’s twisted argument that our federal public lands birthright is somehow unconstitutional. The list of attendees included Mark Blasdel, the Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.
Near the same time, a rancher named Cliven Bundy bullied federal land managers near his ranch in Nevada. He staged a showdown, bristling with rifle barrels, over his refusal to pay $1 million in grazing fees. Even though no western livestock associations would side with a deadbeat like Bundy, some politicians such as Kerry White, R-Bozeman, were eager to voice support.
Politicians who want to grab our public land repeat predictable talking points: they argue that federal government is mismanaging the land so it should be handed over to the states.
It’s easy to find fault in federal land management. Outdoorsmen share many of those frustrations and are working to improve responsive management. But there is no reason to throw the public lands baby out with the bathwater. The alternative is worse.
People should see the “state control” mantra for what it is: a smokescreen. State budgets are already stretched to the breaking point and states are not eager to pick up the costs that are part-and-parcel of managing these lands. Firefighting costs alone would crush state budgets.
States would face only one resolution: sell the land.
Public land liquidation would be a wholesale disaster for the American outdoor family. For all its warts, federal land management guarantees that every American has a voice in how that land is managed and they have an equal right to set foot on it.
Not so if public land suddenly becomes a private hunt club or a tree farm for a timber company.
People around the West need to ask those who represent them some hard questions: Are they siding with the forces that want to liquidate our outdoor heritage? And if so, why should they be trusted with something so rare and irreplaceable as America’s access to the great outdoors?
Land Tawney is executive director of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (www.backcountryhunters.org). He lives in Missoula.