In June, Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Carl Graham, Director of the Sutherland Institute, took the stage at the Heritage Foundation’s “Coalition for Self-Government in the West” panel where they jointly argued that all federal, multiple- use land should be immediately transferred to state control. The coalition’s argument is based on the idea that states can manage public lands better than the federal government because they live there.
A seemingly compelling argument; however, let's take a quick stroll down memory lane. Early western states sold their new frontier (much of which rightfully belonged to indigenous communities) to the federal government because they didn’t know how to manage it. When those same lands were opened to private use in the early 20th Century, clear-cutting and unsustainable forest management scoured the West and nearly obliterated species habitat and fouled waterways.
These lands are public because they are jewels of the American heartland to be preserved for all people throughout the nation. People in New York and Tallahassee have an equal right to visit and preserve places like Yosemite and Big Sur, and other forests and wild lands in between. If states gobbled up these shared spaces they would take with them the unity of the United States. It’s not just Americans in the East who want to keep western land public; in a recent study done by Colorado College, western states demonstrated a strong and growing support of federal public lands.
In that same study, voters agreed with Senator Bishop’s grievance towards the government shutdown’s implication for public lands. When the government shuts down it should not be parks and land access that is cut first! But taking away public lands is not the answer to that fight either! Local communities were estimated to have suffered $76 million dollars per day due to the last shutdown because of the loss of access to parks, monuments and other public lands.
One of the many reasons public lands should stay open and available to all Americans is because they generate huge economic benefits for local communities. Western public lands have generated a 345% increase in jobs in their bordering counties, whereas counties without federal public lands only saw an 84% increase. Locals who benefit from public lands also reap an average income of $2,180 more than their counterparts without public land. Property values also increased in areas that have public land because of the enhanced quality of life and recreational opportunities. A renewed study in 2014 of 17 national monuments confirms that even after the recession, the presence of these monuments is consistent with economic growth in their neighboring communities. The social, environmental, and economic advantages of public land literally run wild!
Though the Heritage Foundation and the Sierra Club may never see eye to eye on public lands issues, we can at least share and discuss our differing opinions. For the Coalition, lands are a means to resource extraction—timber and fossil fuels. For all Americans, federal public lands provide benefits for local residents and visitors alike, while safeguarding clean and healthy places for generations of Americans to come.
-- By Lauren Van Vliet, Public Lands Protection campaign intern