America's legacy of public lands is a great contribution to humankind and the envy of the world.
Beginning in 1872 with Yellowstone, the world's first national park, we have set aside hundreds of millions of acres as permanent, public lands. Public lands, like national parks and national forests, are available for all citizens n forever. My grandchildren will experience the grandeur of Glacier National Park, hunt and fish in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and revel in the solitude of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness just as I have. As a professor, I teach my students with pride about America's unique system of public lands and how our laws protect these lands for future generations.
As Westerners, public lands exert a subtle but powerful influence on our daily lives. Not only do we use public lands for work and play, the public domain preserves a profound landscape that shapes our relationship with the natural world. National forests, national parks and other public lands preserve and protect millions of acres of mountains, forests, deserts and the wildlife that inhabit them. We are awed by soaring precipices, humbled by endless waves of mountains receding across the horizon, and captivated by wildlife because we can experience them firsthand on our public lands. Our lives in the American West are richer and fuller because of those experiences.
Giving large tracts of our public lands to permanent, private and exclusive uses is contrary to protecting these lands' legacy. And that is why granting the Bitterroot Resort an exclusive special use permit to control nearly 12,000 acres of public lands for one individual's private ski resort is contrary to our national heritage.
Public lands are sometimes used for private enterprise. Outfitters obtain special use permits to operate on national forests. Ranchers do the same for irrigation ditches. Concessionaires operate in national parks. These traditional private uses are relatively small in scope and interfere little with the broader use of public lands. I consider "mom and pop" ski areas traditional, low-impact special uses of public lands.
But mega-ski resorts are different. They have little to do with skiing and everything to do with selling high-end real estate. We do not have to revisit the wisdom of past decisions giving large corporations in places like Vail and Aspen, Colo., exclusive control of the public domain for their ski resorts. More than 100 ski areas, including six within 100 miles of Missoula, already operate on public lands. The fact that skier days nationwide have been stagnant for more than a decade belies the need to convert more public land to private ski areas.
The ski industry argues that mega-ski resorts physically occupy only a small percentage of national forest lands. While that statement is true, it avoids the larger truth that impacts of mega-resorts extend far beyond special use permit boundaries. Ski resorts start at the valley floor, often affecting the best wildlife habitat and riparian areas n in the Bitterroot Resort's case, crucial elk winter range.
The noise, pollution and visual intrusions from such resorts extend for miles. Traffic congestion, increased fire and police protection and strains of water resources are other external costs borne by the public. Management for multiple uses such as recreation, wildlife and natural resources becomes exclusive use as a means to generate profit for a select group of investors. Furthermore, ski resort special use permits are always renewed and often expanded n the resorts become permanent private intrusions on the public domain.
America's public lands are a finite resource; every acre counts. Special use permits like the one proposed by the Bitterroot Resort privatize a public resource. The permittee reaps a tremendous financial windfall, and we forever lose another slice of our unique American public land heritage.
Jack Tuholske teaches natural resources law at both the University of Montana Law School and the Vermont Law School. He will be extolling the virtues of America's public lands at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia as a Fulbright Scholar next year.