Fact-Checking the GOP’s Plan to Steal Your Public Land

The Republican Party's justification for selling off public lands holds no water. Just ask President Reagan.

Jul 22, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Fact-Checking the GOP’s Plan to Steal Your Public Land

I took this photo last week on some of the National Forest land the GOP wishes to steal from you. The fact that wilderness like this exists in our country is, to me, a point of not only national pride, but also represents the kind of country I want to pass down to future generations. This land is what makes America great, right now.    Photo: Wes Siler

You, I, and every other American own 640 million acres of land in the U.S. We use it to hike, hunt, fish, raft, cycle, ski, and camp, and it produces hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue that directly benefits our lives. It also makes possible our country’s massive $646-billion outdoor recreation industry, which is roughly a third larger than the auto industry.

And now it’s officially the Republican Party’s policy to steal all of that from you. 

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This week at the Republican National Convention, the party adopted a platform that includes this language:

Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.

The phrasing is vague and has been misinterpreted by many. But it comes after a multi-year campaign by Republican lawmakers to transfer large swaths of national forest and other public lands to state control, thereby forcing their sale to private companies

Do I sound like a crackpot to you? It’s hard to write about this heist without coming off as a conspiracy theorist or just someone who’s wackily partisan. But this really is happening at the initiative of the Republican party. Early congressional votes on the heist have been unanimously backed by Republican lawmakers—and unanimously opposed by everyone else. The craziest thing about all this is that we’re talking about the party which originally gave us these lands, and which protected them for us for over a century. 

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel pulls no punches on the issue, describing its backers as part of an “extreme movement to seize public lands.” She goes on to describe their plan as “putting lands that belong to all Americans at risk of being sold off for a short-term gain to the highest bidder.”

The short version of the story is that, while the public land heist is being promoted as a states' rights issue, that’s actually just smoke and mirrors. The states lack the financial ability to manage such large tracts of land (the fire-fighting budget alone would bankrupt many of them), virtually guaranteeing their sale. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the plan is to “strip public lands of protection and turn them over for private exploitation.”

The Claims

How does the GOP justify the land heist? The platform reads:

These are public lands, and the public should have access to them for appropriate activities like hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. Federal ownership or management of land also places an economic burden on counties and local communities in terms of lost revenue to pay for things such as schools, police, and emergency services. It is absurd to think that all that acreage must remain under the absentee ownership or management of official Washington.

The Facts

Those may sound like solid justifications, but the thing is, they’re all lies. Let’s start with the question of access. Historically, privatizing public land has been shown to reduce, or eliminate, public access. Right now we are free to enjoy these lands as we wish.

Would privatization improve, or even retain, public access? No, despite what the GOP would have you believe. 

An economic burden created by the presence of public lands in local communities? They’re hypothesizing that turning the lands over to resource exploitation would create jobs for local people.

There are two problems with that: 1) It’s a tacit admission of the end goal of this heist—privatization. And 2) These lands are already responsible for millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars nationwide. Not only does federally managed mining, logging, and other activities occur on these lands—conservation is, by definition, managed use—but outdoor recreation employs 6.1 million Americans. How does that benefit local economies? In Nevada, for instance, outdoor recreation is responsible for 148,000 jobs and contributes $1 billion annually to the state in tax revenue. That sounds like an economic benefit to me—not a burden. 

And the outdoor recreation industry is not the end of the story. In 2014, the Department of the Interior says over 400 million people visited the lands it managed, supporting 355,000 jobs and creating $25 billion in spending. Energy production on DOI lands created an economy contribution of $220 billion and was responsible for one million jobs. DOI water storage and delivery netted our economy $60 billion and supports 378,00 jobs. 

Are public lands a burden on local economies? The GOP’s claim is false. 

Absentee ownership and management? No one would argue that our public lands are managed perfectly, but we’re talking about a program that’s been in place since 1849, and when you take the long view, the management of our land has been so successful that it's the envy of the rest of the world. No other country on earth enjoys unfettered access to such a vast area of land, nor is able to keep it as pristine as ours. The Department of the Interior employs 70,000 people, and manages a volunteer force of 280,000. Its annual budget is $12 billion. In 2015, it spent $2.1 billion on fire fighting alone. Who else can apply those kind of numbers but the federal government? And who can do all that while creating a net financial benefit? The DOI adds $358 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

Are public lands neglected by the agencies tasked with managing them? Jewel herself admits the DOI, and specifically national parks, could use a greater budget, and there are plans in place to bring some corporate money in to provide that, but no, our land is successfully managed and has been for 167 years. The GOP’s claim is false. 

The GOP’s justifications for stealing our public land holds no water. And the thing is: historically, the Republican Party would agree.

The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us. — Ronald Reagan

Read more on the public land heist: 

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