The Public Land Issue: Teddy Roosevelt & Woody Guthrie Had It Right

I was spoiled with wealth as a child. Financially, my family was not particularly well off. We made ends meet — but new cars, flights, fine dining — these were not things familiar to me. Nevertheless, wealthy I was.

I was fortunate enough to be born to two fourth generation Montanans, both of whom had grown up fishing, hiking, and hunting, and both of whom desired to share their love of the outdoors with their children. My embarrassment of riches can be counted in the passed-down legacy of outdoor opportunities available in Montana.

Growing up, our hobbies often led us to public lands, which comprise nearly 30% of Montana’s landmass. Some of my earliest memories are hiking in our national forests; fishing for eager brookies and Yellowstone cutthroat trout in alpine lakes; eating them with a bit of lemon pepper over a campfire. When you experience these things as a child, it influences your thinking—your appreciation of nature’s very existence—for the rest of your life.

That influence, and the desire to find adventures in our wild, unspoiled settings is still with me today. It’s why, generally, you can find me spending my free time on rivers or in mountains today.

Which brings me to why I’m sitting at a keyboard, writing to strangers on this lovely September day, rather of hiking as I’d planned. The U.S. House of Representatives, as it has been for the past few years, is attempting to sell off large portions of our public lands. It sounds somewhat innocuous, but the endgame is nothing short of draconian.

How this land became our land

A brief bit of background information is helpful. Late in the 19th century, as a greater number of people moved westward in the United States, a growing number of voices began to advocate for the federal government to buy tracts of land and hold them in order to preserve them in their natural state. It was hard work, and many men and women dedicated their lives to the idea, most famously John Muir. Eventually, they succeeded in convincing enough politically and financially connected people to support their cause.

Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872; the Shoshone National Forest was officially named as the first national forest in 1891. In 1924, the U.S. designated the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico the world’s first wilderness area. Since then, as views on conservation and land use have evolved, the patchwork collection of federally-owned publically-accessible lands has grown considerably. This includes BLM, national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, and many smaller entities. Today, national forests, the largest of the above mentioned public entities, account for approximately 8.5% of the total land area in the United States.

If you don’t live in a place where this land is in close proximity, its importance might be a bit obscured. In Montana, as in other states, many of our most beautiful, wild, and inspiring landscapes exist on federally-held land, allowing anyone who pleases to access their considerable wonders. For quite a few of us, these lands are the only access point for our chosen outdoor activity. Without these designated federal lands, our mountains would simply be something to enjoy from a distance, a real-life landscape painting, which, just as if in a museum, you could never touch. The existence these designated areas is essential not only for the enjoyment of the people who live here, but also from an ecological standpoint; its why the land was set aside in the first place, and until recently, why this idea had enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington.

Follow the paper trail

It begs the question, what could possibly be the motivation to sell off national forests that exist for the enjoyment of the public at large? Well, it is politics; the answer, as it usually is, is money. The sale of large tracts of formerly public land could only be afforded by large corporate entities, whose intention it would be to then turn a profit off of their newly acquired assets. Basically, it’s about resource extraction.

Even though the federal government currently leases land to logging operations (which brings in over 200 million dollars in revenue annually) and in some cases mining companies on federal lands, private entities find the restrictions on where and how they can extract resources on federal lands too constraining. Federal restrictions do put up the obligatory bureaucratic red tape, and accessing a lease to harvest natural resources on public lands often takes years, and results in costly lawsuits filed by the myriad environmental groups that serve as unofficial watchdogs for all-things-protected.

These corporate interests also find buying land from private holders either prohibitively expensive or not as available as they would like. To solve this availability and expense problem, they’re pushing a bill in order to buy your public lands for cheap, so that they can turn a larger profit.

Corporations provide jobs, and none of us would begrudge anyone trying to make an honest buck. A regulated expansion or loosening of the federal lease program would seem reasonable and palatable to many, particularly regarding logging. It would also be ecologically beneficial, as western forests have become overgrown due to our firefighting policies and the scourge of pine beetles. Instead, the idea is to cash in quick and de-federalize the land altogether, ultimately denying us all access to some of the most spectacular places in our country for our generation and all of those who follow—all for a better ROI.

ansel adams

From federal, to state, to private, to gone

Apologies in advance for the need to point out responsible parties—or rather the responsible party—for this attempted land grab. Support for the sale of public lands in Washington only exists in the Republican Party. Now, not all Republicans support it, but no one else besides them does. HR 3650, which passed through its House committee in June 2016, succeeded with the support of all but one Republican, but was opposed by all Democrats. Similar legislation over the past couple of years regarding sales of federal land has likewise been split along party lines. I tell you this not to fan partisan or ideological flames, but so that you know who to write and call if you cherish public land.

Stating that the desire to sell federal lands in order to facilitate higher profits for large corporations wouldn’t fly with the public, so the argument for selling the land, in short, goes like this: maintaining our national forests (and other federal lands) is too expensive—and as something administered by the bureaucracy of the federal government—not preferable. Therefore, we should sell national forests off to the states that they exist in, lessening the influence of the federal government, and turning a tidy one-time profit.

The states, of course, cash-strapped and with even smaller budgets, have no means to fight fires, spray weeds, or maintain trails. Which is the point. In Montana, where there is some support for this plan within the state legislature, the plan is to then sell off these formerly public lands to the highest private bidder.

Montana is a largely conservative state and a significant portion of — if not a majority of the hikers, hunters, bikers, foragers, and anglers using federal lands — would self-identify as such. These people are the ones who would be most affected by the proposed sale of the land, which produces a conundrum from a marketing standpoint for those in support of the sale. That’s why you hear the proponents of HR 3650 using obscure coded words and phrases like “state’s rights,” “government overreach,” and “deficit reduction” in their attempt to hide the real issue of appeasing lobbyist’s monetary desires.

The fact that there’s a bill in the House attempting to do this, with no media coverage, is disappointing, but somewhat predictable. The states with the largest percentages of federal lands are largely rural and western, far from the media and population centers of New York and California. It isn’t disturbingly enthralling like Trump. It isn’t terrifying like ISIS. It surely isn’t as sexy as the latest celebrity breakup.

One if by land, two if by…

Public use issues like this are increasing in Montana. The attempt to sell off public lands coincides, at least locally, with the crusade of a few very wealthy landowners to overturn Montana’s Stream Access Law. This law, which is in our state’s constitution, allows outdoor recreationists to access water from any public land or road that crosses the body of water. The recreationist, in turn, must stay below the high-water mark while using the water for whatever purpose they have chosen.

If you’ve visited Montana for the purpose of fishing, whitewater rafting, canoeing, tubing—whatever—your ability to do so almost certainly exists because of this constitutionally-enshrined law. It’s a law that provides not only incredible opportunities for outdoor recreationists, but also a major boost to our struggling economy via tourism and guided trips.

But these landowners don’t like the fact that people can fish or float on a river where they own the adjacent land, so they’ve been attempting to overturn the Stream Access Law. Writing about this issue last November cost a local journalist his job, as the information in his article contained a less-than-sympathetic portrayal of a major financial benefactor an organization he worked for, although the piece was printed in another publication.

This same benefactor and a couple of others even (allegedly, although with a significant paper trail) funded a successful campaign to get a Montana Supreme Court justice sympathetic to their cause elected, which has the state investigating them for breaking Montana’s campaign finance law. The newly-elected justice, for her part, immediately ruled in favor (thankfully in the minority) of overturning the Stream Access Law in a suit filed by the one primary funders of advertising for her election. No one has been convicted for an offense regarding these events as of yet, but you can judge for yourself the merits of their alleged actions.

All is not lost, but we’re in for a fight

Luckily, these selfish attempts at the hoarding of public resources have failed to come to full fruition to this point. We are, as we have been for generations, blessed with an abundance of public access to our wild places today.

I’ve sat countless times—on national forest land, in a state or national park, or on a river accessed via my state’s constitution—inspired by the awesomeness and beauty that can be found with just a bit of work. For those of us that love the outdoors and cherish wilderness as unspoiled as it can be, they are priceless, wonderful places.

It would be preferable if I could simply sit with a bit (is a bottle considered a bit?) of bourbon next to a fire on an alpine lake, or on the shore of a river, and not think about these issues. Occasionally I can. It’s what we all want in the outdoors—to get away—a sense of adventure and emotional intoxication wholly separated from the stressful entanglements of modern humanity. But if we don’t think about them—if we’re not willing to fight for them—there’s a chance that our ability to enjoy them will be taken away forever.

To me, that’s unfathomable and unacceptable. That’s why rather than having that cup of bourbon on an alpine lake right now, I’m here, writing in an office, a minuscule voice in what will hopefully be a cacophony of resistance saying no, the joy and exhilaration we find in our mountains and on our rivers is not for sale, at any price, at any time, to any party.

Sign the petition to stop the sale of public lands