by Will Rogers
New York Times op-ed
San Francisco — A battle is looming over America’s public lands.
It’s difficult to understand why, given decades of consistent, strong support from voters of both parties for protecting land, water and the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic benefits these resources make possible.
Last week, the United States Senate voted 51 to 49 to support an amendment to a nonbinding budget resolution to sell or give away all federal lands other than the national parks and monuments.
If the measure is ever implemented, hundreds of millions of acres of national forests, rangelands, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and historic sites will revert to the states or local governments or be auctioned off. These lands constitute much of what’s left of the nation’s natural and historical heritage.
This was bad enough. But it followed a 228-to-119 vote in the House of Representatives approving another nonbinding resolution that said “the federal estate is far too large” and voiced support for reducing it and “giving states and localities more control over the resources within their boundaries.” Doing so, the resolution added, “will lead to increased resource production and allow states and localities to take advantage of the benefits of increased economic activity.”
The measures, supported only by the Republicans who control both houses, were symbolic. But they laid down a marker that America’s public lands, long held in trust by the government for its people, may soon be up for grabs.
We’ll get a better sense of Congress’s commitment to conservation this year when it decides whether to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in 1965 and financed by fees paid by oil companies for offshore drilling. The program underwrites state and local park and recreation projects, conservation easements for ranches and farms, plus national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.
Nearly $17 billion has gone to those purposes over the years, including 41,000 state and local park and recreation projects, some of which my organization has helped put together. (Another $19 billion was diverted by Congress to other purposes.) The program expires Sept. 30 unless Congress keeps it alive.
Land protection has long been an issue for which voters of both parties have found common cause. Since 1988, some $71.7 billion has been authorized to conserve land in more than 1,800 state and local elections in 43 states. Last year, $13.2 billion was approved by voters in 35 initiatives around the country — the most in a single year in the 27 years my organization has tracked these initiatives and, in some cases, led them.
But this consensus is being ignored, and not just in the nation’s capital.
In November, for instance, 4.2 million Florida voters approved a state constitutional amendment to provide $22 billion over the next 20 years for land and water protection. But some legislative leaders want to use the money mostly for programs other than the land protections voters expected.
New Jersey voters also approved a constitutional amendment in November to dedicate corporate business tax revenue to preserve open space, farmland and historic places in the nation’s most densely populated state. Again, support was lopsided, with 65 percent of voters in favor. But Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, is now proposing to divert a quarter of the funds to purposes other than land acquisition and preservation.
And in Maine, money approved by voters for a popular state program called Land for Maine’s Future is now caught up in a political tussle. The program was founded in 1987 to conserve land and has protected 560,000 acres. It has enjoyed wide support; in 2012, new bond financing was approved by 60 percent of voters casting a ballot. But Gov. Paul R. LePage, a Republican, is refusing to spend about $11 million unless his plan to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands is approved.
What’s often lost in these debates is that these public lands provide enormous economic benefits.
In 2013, the country’s national parks, wildlife refuges, monuments and other public lands had an estimated 407 million visits, which contributed $41 billion to the economy and helped to support 355,000 jobs, according to a report by the Department of the Interior last year.
It is difficult to understand the hostility of some elected officials these days to public lands, given the historical, bipartisan commitment to protecting our land and heritage. This summer, millions of Americans will get outdoors and enjoy these wise investments.
The writer Wallace Stegner saw “geographies of hope” in our remaining wild places, and wrote that visiting them is “good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring, as vacation, and rest, into our insane lives.” And, he added, “it is important to us when we are old because it is there — important, that is, simply as an idea.”
Rather than selling off the lands we all own, or looking for other uses for the money approved at the ballot box for conservation, our leaders should listen to voters and find ways to protect more of the places that make America special.
Will Rogers is the president of the Trust for Public Land.