Public lands in jeopardy

I spent last Father’s Day visiting my son, David, who works as an interpretive ranger at a state park just outside Las Vegas. I was excited when he and his girlfriend, Jenn, suggested we hike at Gold Butte, a 350,000-acre cultural heritage site administered by the Bureau of Land Management. I worried a little about midsummer hiking in the desert, without suspecting that I was entering landscape embroiled in one of the hottest public-lands debates of my lifetime.
My first clue came when we pulled over for a selfie at the gates of Cliven Bundy’s ranch. The man himself was in jail, awaiting trial in connection with his 2014 standoff with federal officials over illegal cattle grazing. But his aura hung in the air above the ugly compound, and it did nothing to make me feel safer.
A few miles down a gravel road and a bit farther down a rugged two-track brought us to a parking lot within sight of a modest rock outcropping. I thought, “We came all this way into a godforsaken landscape for this?” But I trusted David had brought me here for a reason, so I loaded my lumbar pack with camera gear and lots of water.
Scrambling over slick rock with natural bridges and pinnacles was fun, but I could have done something similar within two hours of home in Missouri. Things grew more interesting as we worked our way farther into the area, where the sandstone bore fantastic designs in burgundy, mauve, apricot and other, indescribable, colors. The Midwest had nothing to compare with this.
Then the petroglyphs began appearing. A few at first, a smattering that might have been Neolithic graffiti. Then a sentence here, a paragraph there, and finally, whole chapters of Southern Paiute history, unintelligible yet eloquent in its variety and visual ingenuity. I was enthralled. “Come on,” David urged, “The best is yet to come.”
Down into a gulch and back up the other side we hiked. At the foot of an 80-foot sandstone overhang, carved into desert varnish on a small rock facet hung a human figure, suspended in perpetual free-fall — Falling Man. Disarmingly simple, yet powerfully evocative, this gestural masterpiece ranks in my mind with the cave paintings of Lascaux. I was momentarily stunned, then captivated.
How would you assign a monetary value to this treasure trove of human and natural artworks? In a way, the United States has already done so. If you believe that actions speak louder than words, they you would be forced to conclude that Americans consider these
things worthless.
Gold Butte’s 350,000 acres, along with the similar but more spectacular treasures in the Bears Ears area of southeastern Utah, were unprotected until President Barack Obama set aside 1.65 million acres as national monuments on Dec. 28.
Gold Butte is an area of critical environmental concern because it harbors the endangered desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep, not to mention historic mining sites and pioneer-era artifacts, while the Bears Ears’ 1.9 million acres house tens of thousands of cliff dwellings, granaries, ceremonial kivas and other ancient structures.
Despite strong support from Indian tribes and the non-Indian public for protecting the Bears Ears area, Republican lawmakers did all they could to discourage President Obama from designating the area a national monument. Republican lawmakers already are agitating for President Elect Donald Trump to reverse this and other similar protections extended to select federally owned lands under the 1906 Antiquities Act going back two decades.
Even more concerning are pronouncements by President Elect Donald Trump and a plank in the Republican Party’s national platform calling for privatization of public lands.
Trump suggested paying off the national debt, partly by selling off $16 trillion in federal assets. The Washington Post’s fact checker called Trump’s proposal “nonsensical,” and gave it his worst rating — “Four Pinocchios.” According to the Government Accountability Office, even if the federal government sold off all its landholdings (including military bases, national parks and national forests) the proceeds would be $3 trillion, a fraction of the national debt. But senior Trump campaign advisor Barry Bennett was unimpressed by these facts and stuck by the lie that selling federal assets could erase the national debt.
“Oh, my goodness,” Bennett said in a Washington Post interview. “Do you know how much land we have? You know how much oil is off shore? And in government lands? Easily.”
Thanks to these types of lies Americans have come to accept several ridiculous notions about federal lands, including the notion that federal agencies are depriving American taxpayers of their birthright by holding onto public-trust lands. The suggested remedy is turning these lands over to the states.
There are several things wrong with this idea. First, federal ownership is the only thing preserving Americans’ right to use their public lands. Assume for a moment that states came into possession of the 435 million acres owned by the BLM and the Forest Service. Since states already lack the resources needed to administer their own meager landholdings, and since states don’t have the luxury of running budgetary deficits year after year, they would be forced to sell or lease these lands to the highest bidders. Overall, Western states have sold 31 million acres of their original public lands.
A report in Salon noted the two-pronged approach that the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity use to run this confidence game on America’s public landowners — you and me. First they lobby Congress to pass bills, often written by the council and other groups backed by the Koch brothers to enable them to get their hands on federal lands. Then they generate mountains of disinformation about how the federal government is violating their right to land owned by the American people.
Here is an excerpt from the Americans for Prosperity brochure on federal land management:
“Obviously, federal agencies need sufficient land to exercise their constitutional functions, like military bases for national security and interstate highways for commerce. However, the vast majority of this land is not used for such purposes, but rather sits idle with little access given to American citizens. Washington’s hoarding of inactive federal lands is legally questionable and economically destructive, necessitating these lands to be speedily transferred to their rightful owners, We the People.”
The American Legislative Exchange apparently considers national forests and land administered by the BLM — the infrastructure for $656 billion-dollar-a-year outdoor recreation industry — idle. Add to this figure the value of timber and minerals extracted from Forest Service and BLM and and you have a more than $1 trillion annual boost to America’s economy and 9.4 million jobs. Idle? It would be laughable if it weren’t so outrageous.
You have to give the land grabbers credit for the boldness of their lies, though. Telling gullible Americans like Amon and Ryan Bundy that they must take back land they already own so it can be pillaged by extractive industries in the guise of “We the People” is a stroke of propaganda genius that Machiavelli would admire.
Idaho has sold or traded away 41 percent of the federal land it received when it became a state. Nevada’s record is even worse. It has jettisoned 99 percent of its original landholdings. In the bidding way, that would ensue if more federal lands were given to states, extractive industries would be able to pay the highest prices, and our treasured national parks, forests and other wild lands would quickly be replaced by vast scars on the landscape.
A few pieces of prime federal land might end up as nature-based theme parks and luxury resorts where well-heeled visitors could spend the night in the Tower House at Mesa Verde National Park, enjoy zip-lining from the top of Half Dome or take log-flume rides in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Think of all the geothermal energy we could tap if we sold Yellowstone National Park to Exxon. Whatever else happens if federal lands go on the auction block, you can be sure that the Koch brothers and other millionaires will snap up the choicest tracts of national forest and turn them into hunting, fishing and golf resorts for themselves and their cronies.
These prospects would cause Teddy Roosevelt to spin in his grave and should be repugnant to anyone who has ever hunted, fished, hiked, camped or simply watched
Nature Channel shows filmed on public lands. It should be similarly horrifying to outdoor communicators whose stock in trade is working on and communicating about these lands. Yet, the Republican Party’s national platform proposes removing unspecified federal lands from federal protection. In a masterpiece of hiding malign intent in fuzzy language, the platform says that “certain” federally controlled lands should be given to states. It doesn’t specify which lands, nor does it say that states could not sell, give away or develop the newly severed federal lands however they choose. President Elect Trump denied wanting to sell or give away federal lands, but he did not oppose the Republican platform plank proposing the raid on federal lands. Given the many policy reversals Trump has made
since his election, it’s impossible to say what he might do in this regard.
Before President Obama protected Bears Ears, Utah’s representatives designed legislation to undermine the designation.
Situations like this are exactly why Congress created the Antiquities Act. This is why nearly every president of both parties since 1906 has used the act when Congress failed do to its job.
So far, President Obama has granted federal protection to more than 260,000 acres of land and water.
Will President Elect Trump break with precedent and negate this and other previous presidential actions protecting public lands? Was Trump’s proposal to sell off federal land only a campaign talking point, or did he mean it?
I can’t answer these questions, so I will pose another one. Can we afford to wait and see? To me, it seems the prudent thing to do is to tell our local, state and federal elected officials not to sell our public lands.
Eighteenth-century philosopher Joseph de Maistre said that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve.
If you think that you don’t deserve to keep your public-land birthright, your choice is easy. Do nothing at all. ♦
— Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Circle of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Circle of Chiefs are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.
— Jim Low has worked as a photographic officer in the army, reporter for the West Plains Daily Quill, editor of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio Game & Fish magazines and public information officer for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

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