The public lands, whether federal or state, belong to all of us. At a time when many Republicans in Congress are demanding that the federal government cede control of extensive public lands to the states, and others are calling on the states to privatize their own public lands – such as Oregon’s 82,000 acre Elliot Forest – it is essential to mobilize public support against such short-sighted policies.
Of the 2.28 billion acres of land that comprise the United States, the federal government owns 637 million acres (28%). The great bulk of these lands are in the West, with 52% percent of Oregon’s 61.6 million total acres federally-owned and managed by agencies such as the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. The State of Oregon’s own public lands total a relatively modest 780,000 acres.
Some public lands are managed to preserve – and provide access to – unspoiled wilderness, others allow visitors to engage in a wide range of recreational activities, while still others are used for natural resource extraction and grazing. There is no question that these lands are a source of enjoyment and of great wealth for the people of our country. Their use also comes at substantial cost, since all of these activities must be responsibly managed, and human created and natural disasters on the public lands, such as pollution and wildfires, have to be cleaned up or contained. The question is who should control these resources and bear the burden of the cost.
In recent years growing local and regional opposition to “official Washington,” which some see as an overbearing “absentee” landlord, has led to calls for more local and state control over federal lands. Extremist vigilantes, such as those who took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Sanctuary for five weeks last year, are the radical spearhead of a larger less violent and mainly rural segment of the population that resents federal ownership and regulation as an obstacle to their livelihood. Many of them believe that these lands essentially belong to them, rather than to the country as a whole, and they want access to the local resources.
The Republican Party foolishly has jumped on this political bandwagon. Its 2016 platform calls for creating “a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally-controlled public lands to the states” and on its first day in office in January the Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed a rule to allow the government to transfer federal lands to the states even if the action reduces revenue. Led by Utah’s Rob Bishop, the House Natural Resources Committee aims for ”a paradigm shift” in federal land management and is attempting to identify public lands suitable for disposal.
For some Republicans, this issue is about local control, while for others it is about shrinking the responsibilities and size of the federal government. In either case, we think it is a mistaken policy.
On a purely practical level, the states (never mind individuals, companies, or local governments) are in no position to take on the enormous costs associated with managing these lands. More important, however, is the principle that the federal lands are held as a public trust for the country as a whole and should be administered for the benefit of all. To try and offload them to the states or to make them available solely for private gain is a betrayal of that trust and must be opposed.
We recognize that tensions sometimes arise when federal and state policies and local interests collide. We believe, however, that such conflicts can be mitigated via transparent public processes, as they often have been regarding matters of water and land usage and endangered species protection. While such processes sometimes cannot satisfy everyone, they are a much better alternative than that of casting aside the public interest altogether. For the people of the United States to fully enjoy the fruits of the public lands, we must keep them public and invest in their protection and effective management.