Four Races That Could Determine the Fate of Our Public Lands

If you needed one more reason to have anxiety about November 8, we found it: the outcome could have a profound impact on the fight over America’s open spaces

Nov 4, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
public lands

These elections could be the deciding factors for the future of our public lands.    Photo: Scott G Winerton/Deseret News

This summer, when the Republican Party announced its official platform, one passage stood out to outdoorsy readers: “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation . . . requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.” Whether or not the management of America’s public lands should be handed over to states has become a strangely polarizing question—and what happens on November 8 could determine the answer. 

In the West, especially, there’s a lot of public land: the federal government owns 47 percent of the region. Americans have long debated how to regulate the mining and logging and ranching—and, of course, the outdoor recreation—that occurs there. But turning all that land over to the states has never made much sense. It would saddle the states with enormous expenses. (One Utah study found that if the state took over its public lands it would spend $275 million a year managing them.) It would also open the door for some states, especially the ones required to balance their budgets, to one day sell the land to private interests. Most Westerners seem to realize this. The region’s newspapers have published more than 40 editorials opposing the transfer of public lands to the states. In polls, 58 percent of its residents oppose it. Only 33 percent support it.

And yet, for many Republican officials, transferring public lands remains a live political issue. This desire isn’t purely partisan—when Montana’s only congressman, Republican Ryan Zinke, saw the party's new platform, he resigned as a convention delegate—but it is a huge waste in taxpayer money and legislative time. More importantly, it's a very real threat to our public lands. Here are the four races that could have the biggest impact on this issue.

Utah’s 4th Congressional District 

The public lands debate has a long and heated history. (See the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s.) But our most recent argument started in the states. In 2012, Utah Republicans passed a law demanding the federal government hand over most of its public land within the state’s borders, even though the demand has no constitutional basis. At first, other states tried to follow Utah’s lead, but the amount of anti-public lands legislation has since slowed down. In Western statehouses, lawmakers introduced more than 30 bills in 2015 session; only six passed. This year, those numbers dropped to 16 bills introduced and one passed. 

With the states at least partially stymied, Republicans have moved their attention and energy to Congress—and Utah is again a key battleground. In the state’s 4th District, which includes a significant portion of Salt Lake City, Democrat Doug Owens is running against Republican Mia Love in the state’s only semi-competitive congressional race. In 2014, Love beat Owens by five points, and now they’re mired in a rematch. While in Washington, Love has sponsored legislation that would transfer the power to enforce laws on public lands from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to state and local authorities; she sent a letter to President Obama opposing the plan to make Bears Ears a national monument; and, on her website, she blasts D.C. bureaucrats and argues that, in most cases, people in Utah "are best equipped to manage the land." Owens faces long odds in a staunchly conservative state. But he’s trying. “If Love were to lose,” says Jessica Wahl, who manages government affairs for the Outdoors Industry Association, “I think it would be a huge swing of the tide in keeping public lands public.” 

Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District

Colorado loves the outdoors—it recently became the first state to create its own Public Lands Day—and the public lands debate has emerged as a big issue in its largely rural 3rd District, which covers much of the western half of the state. The incumbent, Republican Scott Tipton, finds himself in a surprisingly close race with Democratic challenger Gail Schwartz. Schwartz’s campaign has attacked Tipton for being lukewarm on public lands, including the proposed San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which enjoys widespread support in the area. “His approach to public lands,” she told one reporter, “is bought and sold by his special interests.”

Tipton’s campaign has called this a distortion, pointing to his pro-public lands statements and to the fact that he’s rejected the GOP platform’s section on state takeovers. But a bigger controversy in this district has been one of Schwartz’s TV ads. In it, a camera swoops past the state’s mountains and lakes and big blue sky before zooming in on Schwartz in a pastoral field. “This is the Colorado none of us want to lose,” she says, the wild grass brushing against her knees. “Scott Tipton wants to cut off our access to these lands for generations to come.” It just goes to show you that America’s beautiful outdoors and its bare-knuckled politics can mix better than you think.

Montana’s Governor 

Montana is a hotspot for both outdoor lovers and divisive politics. (A few years ago, two out-of-state billionaires spent heavily to elect Laurie McKinnon to the state’s Supreme Court, apparently with hopes that she would restrict public access to the rivers and streams on their sprawling estates.) This year, the state’s gubernatorial contest has frequently featured public lands talking points—and thus serves as a reminder that the states will continue to play a part in the issue’s future.

One thing states can do is avoid fruitless legislation like Utah's. In 2015, Steve Bullock, Montana’s Democratic governor, vetoed a bill that would have created a new task force charged with studying federal land management, a bill many saw as a precursor to Montana’s own attempt to take over that management for itself. But states can be proactive, too. During his reelection bid, Bullock has promised to hire a new state employee who will specialize in protecting and expanding access to public lands.

Bullock has also found a way to turn this issue into a political weapon. His opponent, Republican Greg Gianforte, has praised public lands. But Gianforte is a wealthy businessman who owns land along the state’s East Gallatin River. In 2009, one of Gianforte’s companies sued the state in an attempt to remove an easement that provided public access to that river. The matter was resolved later that year, but that hasn’t stopped Bullock from portraying Gianforte as a multi-millionaire trying to keep regular Montanans from hiking and fishing. In fact, in their final debate, Bullock brought a copy of the lawsuit on stage. “Here’s the lawsuit,” he said, unfolding the document.  

Gianforte complained to the moderators that possessing an outside document was against the debate’s rules. “I just want to note the governor violated the rules,” he said.

“I just want to note Greg Gianforte sued all of Montana,” the governor shot back.  

President of the United States of America

While our governors matter, the next round of public lands bickering seems destined for Congress—and most of what happens at the national level breaks down along party lines. While he was running for president, Republican Senator Rand Paul said, “I’d either sell or turn over all the land management to the states.” Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz made similar promises on the presidential trail. 

Given the issue’s partisan tone, the presidency (and its veto) could play a crucial role in keeping the public lands free. Hillary Clinton seems to be a proud defender of the public lands, and her website includes a typically detailed policy proposal for protecting and strengthening them.  

Trump is harder to read. In a January interview with Field & Stream, he sounded like a public-lands proponent. “I don’t think it’s something that should be sold,” he said. “We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.” And yet, one month later, at one of his mega-rallies, Trump admitted that public lands were “not a subject I know anything about.” No one’s quite sure what to think. “Trump is a bit confusing,” says Jessica Wahl. “He’s an unusual candidate.” 

So while the presidential race isn’t as clear as the others—at least on this issue—Clinton does seem like the safer bet. The most important thing, of course, is that you vote. Every vote counts, whether for public lands or many other issues.

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