Guest Opinions

Keeping our public lands in public hands

More than 2,000 Idahoans gathered at a public lands rally on March 4, 2017, at the Idaho Capitol, including Kerri and Don Silvernell.
More than 2,000 Idahoans gathered at a public lands rally on March 4, 2017, at the Idaho Capitol, including Kerri and Don Silvernell.

It isn’t every day that a national conservation group dedicated to wilderness protection and an organization advocating for motorized recreation unite to take on a common adversary. But such is the case currently as The Wilderness Society and Idaho-based Ribbon Coalition have joined forces to beat back the biggest threat to America’s public lands we have ever seen.

Collectively, we and an array of other groups are demanding that the nation’s largest land management agency halt the sale or disposal of our public lands to state or private entities. Joining us are the Montana Wildlife Federation, The American Alpine Club, hunting clothing brand First Lite, Businesses for Montana’s Outdoors, Fish Pond, and many more businesses, outdoor groups and local elected officials.

If there’s a common thread woven through the tapestry of our outdoor culture, it’s America’s bounty of parks and public lands. From our national forests and wildlife refuges to Bureau of Land Management terrain, our nation’s 640 million acres of public lands — to which each of us holds an equal stake — are found throughout the county. And within that estate, the majority of land is managed on our behalf by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Headed by former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, the department oversees some 481 million acres of public lands across the United States, including America’s national parks, national wildlife refuges, BLM lands and National Conservation lands, which force an impressive network of wilderness, monuments, historic and scenic trails, and more. They are the places we go to pursue our preferred pastimes, to play and push our personal limits, or simply to seek space to unwind, unplug and exhale.

Our public lands qualify as an undeniable national treasure and one of the greatest gifts to every American citizen: a wealth of land that every American owns.

In spite of public lands being among the greatest gifts ever bestowed on Americans, some selfish interests are waging war to terminate more than a century of public land ownership. Their ultimate goal is privatizing large swaths of this common treasure, which would lock out all Americans from enjoying public lands.

But we’re not having it.

A growing cadre of hunters, anglers, hikers, bikers, paddlers, wildlife watchers and outdoor businesses recently submitted a legal petition through the Administrative Procedures Act requesting that Interior Secretary Zinke establish federal rules prohibiting any large-scale transfer, sale or disposal of public lands administered through the Department of Interior.

Secretary Zinke has proclaimed on multiple occasions that he is “absolutely against transfer or sale of public lands.” We wholeheartedly agree, and encourage Zinke to demonstrate his dedication to this principle and his loyalty to the land and to the millions of Americans who are tired of empty promises.

The rule requested in this APA petition would formalize Zinke’s claims and show the public that his commitment to public lands matches his rhetoric. Anything else can be interpreted as a commitment to duplicity and doubt.

This first-of-its-kind action isn’t a magic bullet that will completely kill the threat of public land disposal, but it does serve as a proactive measure designed to remind public officials that they still work for us — all of us.

Whether we’re enjoying the outdoors on two wheels or four wheels, two feet or four hooves, the reality is that Americans can no longer assume our public lands are always going to be there for us. So we stand united in the fight to preserve these places we all share. We may not always agree about the way we enjoy public lands, but we all agree that they ought to remain public.

Brad Brooks is the public land campaign director for The Wilderness Society and Martin Hackworth is the executive director of Coalition.