(Photo: Dylan Fant)

The Next Great Western Land War Has Begun

An in-depth look at the GOP's full-scale assault on our 640 million acres of public land

When the Republicans took over all three branches of government earlier this year, we braced ourselves for a renewed onslaught against our public lands. That wasn’t partisan paranoia: The GOP’s official platform calls for handing over federally managed land—including national parks, monuments, and forests and lands managed by the BLM—to the states. Adopted in July 2016, it reads, in part:

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.

Here, “transfer” is a euphemism for “privatize.” Federal management isn’t perfect, but it’s not intended to be. It’s meant as a compromise to balance the interests of various users, including recreationists and loggers, environmentalists and miners. States, on the other hand, have no such multiple-use mandate—they’re free to focus exclusively on profit, if they wish. Historically, when states take over public land, the public loses. (If you’re still not convinced, read contributing editor Wes Siler’s take.)

Outside would not exist were it not for our public lands and the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry they help support. So, over the past year, we’ve doubled down on our political reporting to tell the stories of the people—both Republicans and Democrats—fighting to protect these wild places. We’ve made a brand-wide effort to aggressively cover the controversies through a mix of features, breaking news, and reader engagement. We’ve put two writers on contract to follow public lands news, which is a substantial investment for a company of our size. We’ve assigned web-only and magazine features about the biggest players affecting our access to public lands.

We’ve also created this regularly updated page as a resource for everyone who cares about this topic—and if you enjoy nature, wildlife, clean air, water, or recreation, you should. We also encourage you to join our Public Lands Facebook group, a place we created to foster discussion and questions about what’s going on—and how you can help.

The Land War Has Begun

Land seems permanent, but once it’s gone, it doesn’t tend to come back. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management/ Flickr)

In February, a massive outcry killed a bill that would have sold off 3 million acres of public land in Utah. But that was just a first salvo in the fight between the Republican Congress and the outdoor industry.

The Assault: A Timeline of Events

When we write that public lands are under attack, we’re not being hyperbolic: From the national monuments review to the prospect of drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the betrayal of the Paris climate change accord, officials under the Trump administration have tried to roll back all sorts of protections on public lands.

Here are the major battles we’ve been watching.

#1. Zinke Acts on the National Monuments Review

The Cedar Mesa Valley of the Gods is part of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, which protects the area's most significant cultural landscapes. (Photo: Bob Wick/The Bureau of Land Management)

In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to review all the national monuments larger than 100,000 acres designated by the Antiquities Act since 1996. A month later, Ryan Zinke, Trump’s secretary of the interior, recommended shrinking one of the most contentious monuments: the 1.5 million–acre Bears Ears, in Utah.

#2. The Monuments Depend on You

The executive order reaches back to include the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante, established in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton. (Photo: Bob Wick/BLM)

In May, the Department of the Interior called for the public to comment on the national monuments review.

#3. …And You Deliver

In just two months, more than 2.8 million people and groups commented on the review. Almost unanimously, those people want President Trump to keep his hands off the monuments, according to a new survey. (Photo: Ian Froome/Upsplash )

Three months later, a new study analyzed those comments and found that over 99 percent of respondents—out of 2.8 million comments—wanted Trump to keep his hands off the national monuments.

#4. The DOI Tries to #FakeNews the Review

Carrizzo Plain National Monument is among those still up for review. (Photo: Zeiss4Me/iStock)

We fact-checked the GOP’s claims about the national monuments review and debunked these four often-quoted misinterpretations.


#5. Zinke Asks Trump to Shrink at Least Three Monuments

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced Thursday that he would not recommend any of the 27 national monuments under review be eliminated. (Photo: Sasha/Upsplash)

In a secret memo leaked in August, Zinke recommended downsizing at least three monuments. So much for listening to public input.

#6. The DOI Releases Its Five-Year Strategy Plan


A leaked five-year strategic plan made zero mention of “climate change” or “diversity,” marking a major pivot away from its predecessor.

#7. What Do Taxes Have to Do with the Arctic? 

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) where Congress may allow drilling. (Photo: (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service))

When the GOP tried (and later succeeded) to sneak a plan into their tax package that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, Outside did the math on oil exploration in America's last great wilderness and the numbers didn't add up. 

#8. Honey, I Shrunk the Monuments!

Valley of the Gods, currently located within Bears Ears, Utah, will no longer be protected under the new monument designation. (Photo: BLM/Bob Wick)

Documents obtained by Outside in late November suggested that President Trump’s forthcoming announcement would involve downsizing the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by nearly a million acres each.

#9. It's Going to Get Ugly

Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, plans to sue the Trump adminstration to protect public lands. (Photo: Getty/Outside)

After Trump flew to Salt Lake City and drastically shrunk two Utah monuments, Patagonia responded with its own message. That prompted Utah Representative Rob Bishop and his House Committee on Natural Resources to egg on the fight, and from there things got nasty

#10. Anger, Sadness, and Frustration

Bears Ears
Thousands of people converged on the steps of Utah's State Capital building to protest President Trump's plan to shrink protected areas across the country. (Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty)

Some of the people who lost the most with the decision to shrink Utah's monuments were the Native Americans who had spent years working to gain protection for their sacred lands, like Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, the former co-chairwoman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

#11. Who's Steering this Thing? 

ryan zinke
Many interior staffers were initially excited about Ryan Zinke’s nomination. (Photo: Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News via AP)

Sure, Zinke can ride a horse. But he's having a much more difficult time taking control of the Department of Interior. Several former employees spoke to Outside about how confusion and low morale are rampant under Zinke

#12. The Private Company Auctioning Your Lands

EnergyNet co-founder and CEO Bill Britain with Chris Atherton, president of EnergyNet.com. (Photo: Justin Clemons)

What's an EnergyNet? We dug up the dirt on a for-profit company in Texas getting rich by auctioning public lands to the energy industry. 

The Key Players

Utah Representative Rob Bishop

Environmentalists’ public lands enemy number one wants to transfer federal land to the states, gut the Endangered Species Act, and eliminate the Antiquities Act—and D.C. is starting to listen.

Rob Bishop holds an image he says is misleading while speaking during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, January 20, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP)

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke

Early in his political career, the interior secretary irked fellow Republicans with his willingness to stand up for conservation. Things have changed, and whether you love or hate his ideas, know this: Zinke is one of the few Trump-era cabinet secretaries with the juice to make things happen, and he’s got the boss’ back.

Zinke is one of the few Trump-era cabinet secretaries with the juice to make things happen. (Illustration: Emmanuel Polanco; Image: Malin Fezehai/Redux)


The iconic brand has long been the conscience of the outdoor industry, forsaking hefty profits to do the right thing. Now the company is going to war against the Trump administration over protections for public land in a bid to become a serious political player—which happens to be very good for sales.

Yvon Chou­i­nard, founder of Patagonia. (Photo: Ben Baker/Redux)

Environmental Advocates

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune explains why the land is worth more than just the resources that are on it.

Protecting the national monument status of many parks isn't just protecting wildlife—it's protecting cultural objects and access for citizens. (Photo: Bob Wick/BLM)


The GOP’s war on public lands threatens to alienate a key part of its voting base: sport hunters.

The work is only getting started when your hunt is successful. (Photo: Justin Moore)

The Courts

Four lawyers on the monuments most likely on Zinke’s chopping block.

Zinke reportedly will recommend Trump downsize at least four national monuments, including Cascade-Siskiyou. (Photo: Jeff Barnard/AP)


A longtime DOI employee says he was forced out because he spoke up about the risk climate change poses to Alaskans. We caught up with him to talk about the state of the Interior, how his colleagues are faring, and what he’d say to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke if given the chance.

(Photo: Matt Artz / Upsplash)

President Donald Trump

And his bent toward energy extraction.

Edward Sheriff Curtis
Riders in another Southwestern national monument, Canyon de Chelly. (Photo: Edward Sheriff Curtis/Wikimedia)

How You Can Make a Difference

Become an Activist

Six steps to make a difference in a darkening world.

Being an activist means standing firmly behind a cause—and taking action to support it. (Photo: Evan Dalen / Stocksy)

Join Our Public Lands Forum

Our Facebook group is a safe place to dig deep into politics.

Located on the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona, the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument includes the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. (Photo: Bob Wick/BLM)

Donate Money to Politicians Who Support Public Lands

Conservationists have just a small voice in the Trump administration. The new Democratic Conservation Alliance public lands PAC wants to buy a bigger one.

public lands
National monuments, including White Sands, have improved the economy of surrounding counties. (Photo: Doug Gates/Unsplash)

Also, Watch This Video

This animated short illustrates what national forests are and how you can help protect them.


Meet Our Main Contributors

Jake Bullinger

Jake Bullinger is a freelance journalist who writes about the West. He grew up in Wyoming, studied in Utah, and now lives in Washington, where he hikes, kayaks, and skis.

Wes Siler

Wes Siler runs Indefinitely Wild, Outside’s lifestyle column telling the story of adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there, and the people we meet along the way. You may recognize Wes from such websites as Jalopnik, Gizmodo, and Hell for Leather.

Christopher Solomon

Christopher Solomon (@chrisasolomon) is an Outside contributing editor.

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is an award-winning freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Playboy, Outside, California Sunday Magazine, Longreads, Vice, and High Country News, among others. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Abe Streep

Abe Streep is a contributing editor at Outside and a contributing writer at California Sunday Magazine. His journalism has also appeared in Wired, Harper’s, the Atavist, the New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, NewYorker.com, the Southern Review, and elsewhere.

Elliott Woods

Based in Bozeman, Montana, Elliott Woods covers adventure, conflict, and environmental issues.

Filed To: Public LandsConservationNaturePolitics
Lead Photo: Dylan Fant
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