Of all the nutty ideas floating around these parts of late – procuring an aircraft carrier (Wyoming), pets as wolf bait (Idaho) and Yellowstone bison as bio-terrorists (Montana) – none compare to Utah on the incredulity meter.
Seems the Beehive State is abuzz about an effort to put a fresh coat of paint on an old, failed idea: seizing control of all public lands within its borders other than national parks, wilderness areas, military bases and Indian reservations.
Alas, unlike the seasonal silliness in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, this Utah land grab has some traction. Its Legislature passed a bill asserting eminent domain over public lands – our lands – and the governor signed it, pledging to sue if Utah doesn’t receive nearly 30 million acres by 2015.
Federal land managers are shrugging off Utah’s chest thumping as little more than election-year bluster. They view it as a tea party tent revival of the failed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, and agree with many legal scholars that the takeover will be laughed out of court.
Yet the very idea should have us quaking in our hiking shoes, hunting boots and waders. Ranchers, outfitters, guides and other small-business owners should also be coalescing in alarm.
After all, parallel conversations are taking place across the West as politicians plot to mortgage our cultural heritage and grandchildren’s quality of life for short-term, boom-and-bust riches.
In Montana, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who apparently feels 32,000 miles of roads on U.S. Forest Service lands aren’t enough, supports releasing the nation’s few remaining non-wilderness roadless areas – our best hunting and fishing lands – for development.
Let’s be clear about motives: These politicians want control of our lands so special interests can mine, drill, pave and bulldoze without having to navigate such pesky matters as clean air, clean water and other health safeguards.
And the land-grab effort isn’t limited to shortsighted state representatives with visions of lobbyists’ cash dancing in their heads. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum vowed to sell public lands to the private sector, saying, “The federal government doesn’t care about this land.” Presumed Republican candidate Mitt Romney “doesn’t know what the purpose is” of our public lands and would just as soon toss them into an Etch A Sketch.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., has even floated the idea of selling national parks to private interests.
Clearly, a primer is in order here.
Public lands provide us with clean water, clean air and essential wildlife habitat. They are where millions of Americans go to hunt, fish, hike, camp, ride, run, ski, pedal, photograph, explore or simply find solitude in a rapidly shrinking world. They provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in economic impact for rural communities.
Above all, they are the embodiment of American freedom and individualism – places where anyone can go regardless of race, creed, color or stock portfolio. Our 750 million acres of public lands, much of it established more than a century ago by forefathers with wisdom and vision, set our nation apart.
If you think wilderness locks up land, wait until you are met by miles of fences, gates, padlocks, corporate signage and corner posts spray painted in ubiquitous bright orange. If you think government programs are European-izing this nation, wait until you have to pay a premium to hunt or fish on lands your grandparents once freely traversed.
Do the simple math: More people plus less public land equals less access and more crowds on the few equal-opportunity landscapes we have left. All of which leads to more rules, regulations and cost for the average American.
Most of us recognize the economic, ecological and spiritual value of these public lands. A whopping 93 percent of Colorado voters recently polled sees them as essential to the state’s overall health.
It makes you wonder whom politicians favoring land grabs truly represent.
Sell our public lands? Seriously? For anyone who thinks that nutty idea will sit well with Main Street America, I’ve got an aircraft carrier on Yellowstone Lake to sell you.
Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.