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BY MATTHEW COPELAND
Stacks of informative articles and level-headed opinion pieces have been written of late about our slinking progress toward wholesale public land transfer and the ongoing efforts to stop it. See Todd Tanner, Bob Marshall, Scott Willoughby, Ben Neary, Judith Kohler, Raph Graybill, and as always, Hal Herring for particularly eloquent examples. What follows here will not be as civil. I am angry, and I am frightened. I believe that anyone who isn’t angry and frightened, isn’t paying attention. And I believe the time for polite discourse has passed.
Open-minded, well-informed consideration of every issue is critical to the functional health of any democracy. In fact I think the erosion of such vigorous debate in our society explains many of our current ills. But public lands transfer is not a topic on which reasonable adults can disagree. It’s not a “topic” at all. It is an attempted robbery — a bald-faced, unabashed, mass swindling of the first order. And the crooks have damn near pulled it off already.
Which would be difficult enough to swallow if it were just land at stake. Our public lands are our most economically valuable national asset, responsible for raking billions of dollars directly into the national coffers each year and supporting far more lucrative free market economic activity. We are literally talking about selling off 28 percent of our country. But politicians’ hands have swept mankind’s pockets ever since we outbred the hunter-gatherer clan structure, maybe longer. What’s a few hundred million more acres pilfered from the people?
It’s not about the land or the money though. What’s ultimately at stake here is a way of life. Who we are as a nation, how we live as a people and what it means to be American have all sprouted from the public soil of our great republic. Public land is the bedrock on which our national mythology is built. The cowboys, mountain men and pioneers wouldn’t have existed without public land. “Huckleberry Finn” is a public land story, as are “Call of the Wild,” “Lonesome Dove” and “A River Runs Through It.” “Don’t Fence Me In” and “America the Beautiful” were written about a landscape with equal access for all. Public lands put the “Wild” in the Wild West. Our spirit of exploration and adventure is inexorably tethered to the distant horizon and predicated on the freedom to cross the ground in between. Without public land, hunting, fishing, hiking and camping are reduced to commercial transactions and restricted to those who can afford them. Are we still American without room in America to roam?
Surely, nothing so central to our economy, identity and lifestyle could be genuinely threatened by the people who represent us. Maybe in some backwater banana republic or former Soviet state, but such gross injustice, such shameless theft could never happen here, right?
One would think. But I’m here to tell you the barbarians are at the gate, they are coming for what you hold dear, and they are winning. With the passage of SA 838, 51 United States Senators have thrown down the gauntlet, spit in your eye and made their intentions clear. They are rewriting the laws to take your land. Their threat is real and it is really happening. We can probably count on the current administration to thwart a land grab for the next 18 months, but who knows after the next election? Particularly if such brazen disregard for the public interest goes unpunished.
And let us be clear. We are being disregarded. The Senators and state governments who’ve led us down this path to the brink of unthinkable calamity know exactly what they’re doing. They are not stupid and they are not misinformed. There has been no misunderstanding of American sentiment. They just don’t care. They don’t care because they’ve sized us up, taken our measure and deemed us impotent. Maybe they figure we’re scared enough of the long promised, but never quite materializing, gun-snatching boogeyman that we won’t dare abandon their protection. Maybe they figure we’re so absorbed in Netflix and “Clash of Clans” that we’ve lost track of the real world. Maybe they’ve just done the math and decided we’re already beaten.
Our Public Lands
- Acres of federal public land in the United States: 6.4 million
- U.S. public land owners: 320,590,000
- Hunters and anglers who rely on public land: 69 percent
- Westerners who’ve used public lands in the last year: 95 percent
- Annual outdoor recreation economy supported by public lands: $646 billion
- Jobs supported by public lands recreation: 6.1 million
- Sportsmen’s groups and outdoor businesses that oppose transfer: 114
- Western voters (the supposed beneficiaries of transfer) opposing sell-off: 67 percent
- Senators who voted to open the door to wide-scale divestment of public land: 51
- State governments who’ve moved to “reclaim” federal public land: Seven
- Politicians voted out of office for supporting sell-off efforts: Zero
I have to admit it. So far, from their perspective, the math looks pretty sound. I could pile-up reams of compelling numbers, in fact, the much more capable professionals at the National Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Colorado College already have. But at this point, there’s really only one calculation that carries weight. Unless the big fat zero at the end of the above list changes, the behavior of our elected officials won’t change either.
I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, and with my first squalling breath I inherited 1-million square miles of the most beautiful real estate on planet earth — boom, a geo-genetic jackpot winner just like every other natural-born American citizen. I can wander where I choose, hunt in the hills, fish in the rivers, lose myself in the mountains or find myself in the desert. Millions of naturalized immigrants earned these rare and precious privileges with the sweat of their brow. Millions more Americans have defended them with the blood in their veins. Now, regardless of our previous paths, we’re all facing the same question. Will our kids know these same freedoms or will they become disenfranchised visitors on someone else’s property?
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
It does for now. If we don’t start making a lot more noise though, we’ll need to rewrite that land part pretty damn quick.
“O’er the holdings of the corporations?”
“O’er the real-estate portfolios of the 1 percent?”
I don’t know, neither sounds like where the brave live to me.
So please, get on the phone. Tell your elected officials they need to fix this — all of them. Follow that call with a letter — or three. Then get back on the phone and ask your friends, family, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Sign the Sportsmen’s Access Petition at http://sportsmensaccess.org/. Hold a rally. Wave placards. Go to the next town hall meeting and speak your mind. Demand to know where candidates for public office stand on our public lands. Keep score.
Then vote your conscience. ♦
–Matthew Copeland served a six year corporate sentence in Major Metro USA before finding his way home to Wyoming and setting out to serve on his own terms. Today he writes for assorted magazines and helps clients tell their stories more effectively… when he’s not off playing in the mountains that is.