Environment

America's Public Lands Are Under Attack by Politicians Voicing Misleading Claims About 'States Rights'

If federally managed land is transferred to state control, it's no longer owned by the American people.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah.
Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management (Bob Wick) / Flickr

National parks feel like family to millions of Americans. So close, we’re on a first-name basis. We drop “Yellowstone” and “Yosemite,” “Glacier” and “Grand Canyon” with pride, whether telling stories, planning vacations or just dreaming about time spent outside.

But names like Cascade Siskiyou National Monument and McInnis Canyons National Recreation Area don’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way. These places aren’t as well known, but they’re just as special. Many public lands, just like our most famous parks, contain national treasures that deserve strong protection for future generations.

Here’s the problem: America’s public lands are facing unprecedented and immediate threats that demand our urgent attention. In the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of a well-organized effort to remove protections from some of our most treasured landscapes in order to extract short-term profit, such as the move to strip Bears Ears in Utah of its national monument status.

These efforts rely on misleading appeals for “states’ rights” to flawed economic information. But unfortunately, they enjoy support at the highest levels of government.

There’s a lot at stake. America’s public lands—the exceptional wild places that provide maximum value when simply left untouched—embody the bedrock notion that our country’s heritage does not solely belong to current citizens, but to all future generations as well.

If anti-public lands ideas take hold, we could lose one of America’s most important and vital traditions. This isn’t a political issue—it’s a question of whether we will uphold our solemn promise to our children and grandchildren. Attempts to undermine America’s tradition of balanced federal lands stewardship are wildly out of step with public support favoring protections for public lands, the huge and growing popularity of recreation on public lands and the thriving economy it supports, among other factors.

Here’s the truth:

A resounding majority of Americans support protection of our public lands. More than 93 percent of respondents across the country said it’s important that historical sites, public land and national parks be protected for current and future generations.

  • In Western states, 68 percent of voters support a greater emphasis on public lands protection rather than energy protection (22 percent). And 80 percent want to maintain designations of public lands as National Monuments—and by a 15-point margin, voters see the Bears Ears National Monument designation as a good thing.

  • Eighty-one percent of hunters and anglers across party lines consider themselves conservationists. Hundreds of small businesses and large companies across all industries support protecting public lands because their businesses depends on outdoor recreation or because protected wild places help recruit top talent.

Protected public lands drive an enormous economy and support millions of jobs. Public lands are basic infrastructure for outdoor recreation—and they play a major role in making outdoor recreation America’s fourth-largest industry. Outdoor recreation in the United States powers $887 billion in annual consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs (compared with 180,000 jobs from oil and gas extraction). Americans spend more on outdoor recreation than on electronics, pharmaceuticals or automobiles.

  • Protected public lands also significantly boosts the economies of communities nearby. Studies show that rural areas in the West close to protected federal lands perform significantly better on average than areas without protected federal lands in a variety of economic measures—including per capita income and employment.

  • A June 2017 study focusing on the economic impact of national monuments found that local economies experienced increases in population, employment, personal income and per-capita income after the creation of new monuments nearby.

Federal management of public lands is the only way to protect our heritage. Anti-public lands advocates argue that public lands should be “returned to state control,” which they claim would allow decisions about land use to be made at the local level. But if a state owns the land, it’s no longer owned by the American people. This would amount to theft from the American people—severely limiting our access for recreation, including hunting and fishing, by putting control into the hands of a few, wealthy special interests, rather than keeping our lands in public hands.

  • This kind of federal land transfer has occurred before—with 156 million acres entrusted to the states as they entered the union. To date, those states have sold off 70 percent of that land to the highest bidder at auction.

  • A transfer of federal lands to state ownership—and the highly likely subsequent sale for private development—would severely damage the thriving outdoor recreation economy that supports 7.6 million American jobs.

Public lands are used for all kinds of things—and that’s a good thing. Anti-public lands advocates want you to believe that protecting treasured landscapes means locking up all public lands and barring any uses besides recreation. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Federal law explicitly requires that public lands be managed for “multiple-use”—defined as the “management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.” That means public lands are used for all kinds of things, depending on their characteristics, including energy development, livestock grazing, mining, timber production, wildlife management, scientific study, cultural preservation and recreation.

  • A small fraction of our 640 million total acres of public lands is off-limits to development. Just one-sixth of all public lands have been given the highest level of protection: inclusion by Congress in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

  • Unlike what you might hear from anti-public lands advocates, there’s no shortage of oil and gas leasing and development on public lands, as those activities generated $230 billion in revenues for the U.S. government in 2015.

Public lands are meant to be passed down to future generations. On behalf of all American citizens, the U.S. government bears responsibility for stewardship of our federal public lands—which includes collecting public and scientific input under processes defined by the law to make decisions about what lands are used for what purposes. As enshrined in our laws and American traditions dating back to the early twentieth century, the solemn concept of stewardship means considering long-term benefits not only for all Americans now, but for all future generations as well.

  • For example, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s official mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

  • While some federal lands may be appropriate for development, other areas with pristine or vulnerable ecosystems popular with millions of Americans for recreation should receive strong protection. Put simply, many places simply provide the greatest overall value when threats of environmental degradation are not present.

Our threatened public lands need us, urgently. Every American is a part-owner in our public lands. We all have a stake in their future. This means it’s our responsibility to hold our elected leaders accountable and make sure they manage public lands in smart and effective ways for our greatest long-term benefit, including safeguarding those treasured places that represent the core of our heritage.

Lisa Pike Sheehy is the VP of Environmental Activism for Patagonia, Inc.  She oversees the implementation of the company’s international environmental grants program which has given away $89M to date to grassroots environmental organizations and activists worldwide. Additionally, she leads Patagonia’s multi-year campaigns to publicize environmental issues and mobilize customers. Lisa's work is focused on increasing environmental activism for Patagonia employees and customers through close partnership with the film, marketing and media teams. 

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