Watersheds Not For Sale

The United States has about 640 million acres of public lands—an area more than seven times larger than Germany. If America needs a wall for defense, we need it around our public lands—which are critical to our heritage and homeland security.

“There is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty,” said President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. “I feel most emphatically that we should not turn a tree which was old when the first Egyptian conqueror penetrated to the valley of the Euphrates, which it has taken so many thousands of years to build up, and which can be put to better use, into shingles.”

Three years later, Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act of 1906, designed to provide an expeditious means of protecting our national heritage by authorizing the president to proclaim national monuments on public lands. Congress passed this act in response to concerns over the theft and destruction of archaeological sites and the plundering of the West’s forests and other vital resources. 

Public lands and public resources in America are under assault by private interests from around the world. It’s not just about beautiful landscapes. It’s about healthy ecosystems, biodiversity and sustaining all of God’s creations, including humans. National parks, National Forests, National Monuments, Bureau of Land Management property and beyond are the latest takeover targets of multinational and domestic corporations alike. Private interests have plundered our public riches for years, but the U.S. government is speeding up the process with collusion, corruption and cover-ups. We the people are being trampled.

endangered species act and wildlife conservation

Throughout the West, a network of special interest groups and politicians are attempting to dispose of national public lands to state, local, and private control. Dozens of bills to achieve this goal have been introduced in state legislatures, and the debate has even reached the U.S. Congress, which has taken steps to undermine our system of public lands.

Studies have shown that efforts to dispose of national public lands to the states would reduce access for recreation, hunting, and fishing—that’s why sportsmen and outdoor groups have fought strongly against such proposals. Additionally, economic analyses demonstrate that states could only afford the costs of managing public lands under extremely unrealistic and idealized scenarios. If land seizure proponents are successful, Western taxpayers would be saddled with the costly burden of wildfire prevention on public lands. These political attacks on American public lands are an affront to our heritage and to the collaborative spirit needed to manage our lands and resources wisely for this and future generations.

These land grabs (corporate giveaways) put biodiversity at risk. They threaten entire watersheds, which threatens our national security.We are told that this dismantling of America will create jobs and make us more energy independent, while preventing forest fires and other potential crises. They might as well say that killing wild mustangs, endangered species and our last forests will make the nation leaner and meaner so get out of the way. These thieves proclaim to be patriots for progress to disguise the fact that they are fascists in sheep’s clothing. While hiding behind bullets and bibles they are duping innocent Americans into help them take over our country at the highest levels.

Although public support for wilderness, national parks, and other public lands is high, these open spaces face serious threats. The sentiments that led to the Sagebrush Rebellion and Wise Use Movement are not in the past, Davis tells us. In his first chapter, “Public Land and its Discontents,” Davis details how,since the gains of the Tea Party in 2010, those against public lands have the support of a large number of office-holders in state and federal legislatures.“What was previously seen as the intemperate agitation of fringe activists is now the standard stuff of political platforms, floor debates, and campaign speeches,” he writes.

Since 2010, conservative lawmakers have introduced proposals to:

  • Open all national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges to roads and motors;
  • Require the government to transfer, without sale, thirty million acres of their holdings;
  • Sell all lands in the Rocky Mountains states to the highest bidder;
  • Shield timber sales from any kind of public or environmental review; and
  • Prevent the creation of any new wildlife refuges.

The Republican Party’s 2012 platform, for example, stated,“Congress should reconsider whether federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.”

Unfortunately, the missing piece of the equation is public comment and a level playing field. Most land grabs and giveaways are acts of favoritism not patriotism. What could possibly go wrong when corporations control entire watersheds?

Many of these initiatives are based on template legislation created by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 to support policies favorable to its corporate advisory board, including Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries. ALEC state legislators organized a 2014 conference in Salt Lake City that they called the “Legislative Summit on the Transfer of Public Lands”—an outright assault on the Homeland.

With Trump in office, lawmakers have doubled down on efforts to open public lands to extractive industries and corporate development. The Department of the Interior under the direction of Ryan Zinke opened two million acres of land in two national monuments in Utah, while supervising the largest lease sale ever (10.3 million acres) of Alaskan federal lands for oil and gas extraction.

To shrink national monuments last year, senior Interior Department officials dismissed evidence that these public lands boosted tourism and spurred archaeological discoveries, according to documents the department released and retracted a day later.

mine water reclamation

The thousands of pages of email correspondence show how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides instead tailored their survey of protected sites to emphasize the value of logging, ranching, and energy development if the land was not designated as national monuments.

Comments that the department’s Freedom of Information Act officers made in the documents show that they sought to keep some of the references out of public view because they revealed the agency’s strategy to influence the review.

Presidents can establish national monuments in federal landor waters if they determine that cultural, historical or natural resources are imperiled. In April, President Trump signed an executive order instructing Zinke to review 27 national monuments established over a period of 21 years. He claimed that his predecessors had overstepped their authority in placing these large sites off limits to developers.

Trump has already massively reduced two of Utah’s largest national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and has not ruled out altering others.

The new documents show that as Zinke conducted his review, Interior officials rejected material that would justify keeping protections in place and sought out evidence that could buttress the case for unraveling them.

Zinke proposed removing some of the forested areas within Cascade-Siskiyou, where three mountain ranges and several distinct ecosystems intersect, to “allow sustained-yield timber production.” Trump has yet to alter the site, which was established by Bill Clinton as a 65,000-acre monument and then enlarged by nearly 48,000 acres before Obama left office.

These redactions came to light because Interior’s FOIA office sent out a batch of documents to journalists and advocacy groups on July 16 that they later removed online.

“It appears that we inadvertently posted an incorrect version of the files for the most recent National Monuments production,” officials wrote July 17. “We are requesting that if you downloaded the files already to please delete those versions.”

Aaron Weiss, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Center for Western Priorities, said in an email that the “botched document dump reveals what we’ve suspected all along: Secretary Zinke ignored clear warnings from his own staff that shrinking national monuments would put sacred archaeological and cultural sites at risk.”

“Trying to hide those warnings from the public months later is disgraceful and possibly illegal,” Weiss added.

Asked for comment, Interior Department officials said they were looking into the matter. The inadvertently released documents show that department officials dismissed some evidence that contradicted the administration’s push to revise national monument designations, which are made under the 1906 American Antiquities Act.

Department officials also redacted the BLM’s assessment that “it is unlikely” that the Obama administration’s establishment of the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument “has impacted timber production” because those activities were permitted to continue.

In response to questions about Grand Staircase-Escalante,BLM wrote that “less inventory” of cultural sites would have occurred without the 1996 monument designation, noting that more than twice as many sites are now identified each year than before. “More vandalism would have occurred without Monument designation,” it states, noting that four visitor centers were established to help protect the area.

And while critics questioned why Interior officials intended to withhold so much material from public view, legal experts said that they can justify it under the exemption covering internal executive branch communications.

Proposed management plans at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante disregard the will of the public and could irreversibly harm these nationally significant lands.

public lands and Mustang management

In December 2017, President Trump signed two proclamations attempting to remove federal protections from roughly two million acres of land in Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This act, which NPCA maintains is illegal, represents the largest reduction of public lands protections in U.S. history.

In August 2018, the Trump administration released proposed management plans that would prioritize harmful activities such as mining and off-road vehicle use in the contested areas that had previously received full federal protections. These management plans are an affront to the public, who spoke out overwhelmingly in favor of keeping full protections in place at all of our national monuments.

Native American tribes fought for years to establish these protections at Bears Ears, where the extraordinary landscape with hundreds of sacred and cultural sites is now vulnerable. Also at risk is the extraordinary trove of scientific and paleontological resources in Grand Staircase-Escalante, where researchers have discovered new dinosaur species and other significant fossils. Both of these sites help to protect the larger landscapes, dark night skies and wildlife migration routes they share with the national park sites that surround them, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Natural Bridges National Monument.

“Diminished public comment periods have forced taxpayers to use the courts to fight for a seat at the public lands management table that is rightfully theirs. This holds true in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and throughout the west, which this administration has targeted with rapidly spreading energy plans that have largely sidestepped public engagement.In many states, taxpayers are further discouraged from having their voices heard by being forced to mail or fax in protests versus using efficient and21st century technology like email. National Parks Conservation Association is among those calling for our voices to be heard, as this administration prioritizes industry over diverse far-reaching community and conservation concerns,” said David Nimkin, Senior Southwest Director for National Parks Conservation Association.

Privatizers have a profound distaste for the political process, and they often tout the virtues of their misplaced faith in market-based economics and conservation. Of course, public management isn’t paradise. There are a long list of failures including overgrazing,clear-cutting, mine mismanagement, predator expulsion, and massive, but destructive, water projects.

wolf conservation and recovery

State lands are even more vulnerable. Utah Senator Mitt Romney recently applauded Trump’s decision to shrink Utah’s national monuments and has argued for more state control over federal public lands.

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker hassold dozens of parcels of state-owned lands, sometimes to political supporters, and without real public process. Davis also describes an insidious “soft privatization” of state-owned public lands, in which state budget crises are used to shift priorities toward revenue-generating ventures like resorts, golf courses, and convention centers. Some states, such as Wisconsin under Governor Scott Walker, have entirely zeroed out their state park budget lines, forcing them to rely on revenue alone.

Here are some key facts about public lands in the United States:

  • 56 percent of Western voters opposedisposing of national public lands to state hands, only 37 percent ofvoters are supportive of the proposal;
  • More than two-thirds of Western voters believe that national public lands belong to all Americans and not just to the residents of a particular state;
  • During the 2016 legislative session, 22 land seizure bills were introduced, allbut six failed. Of the six that passed, five were in Utah;
  • The American Constitution Society analyzed the constitutionality of land transfers, and determined that “states have no constitutional power to force federal land transfers;”
  • Sportsmen like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the National Wildlife Federation have opposed transferring public lands to the state, and outdoor enthusiasts and have rallied against it in six Western capitals;
  • Between 2009 and 2015, the U.S. Forest Service spent over $6 billion suppressing wildfires on Western public lands. If land seizure proponents are successful, these costs would fall to Western taxpayers;
  • Western politicians have spent a combined hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to study selling off or giving away national public lands and could spend millions more; and
  • The land seizure movement is cloaked in ideologies such as county supremacy and coordination.

Although the motivation of privatizers is partially based on a states’ rights ideology that resents the federal government on principle, the movement’s more practical side seeks to skirt environmental reviews. On state or private lands, for example, activities like oil and gas exploration,logging, and grazing often don’t require compliance with laws like the National Environmental Policy, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts.

Fortunately, stakeholders and advocates are working to preserve and defend the integrity of our public lands system. Those efforts include:

  • Defend existing protections for landscapes and waterways on public lands (e.g. National Monuments; Roadless Areas; Wilderness Study Areas; Mineral Withdrawal Areas)
  • Defend our bedrock conservation laws (E.g., Wilderness Act,Antiquities Act, National Environmental Policy Act); and
  • Oppose the proposed transfer of federal lands to the states or to private hands.

So, with the pro-public-lands movement effectively rallying supporters, those who wish to transfer public land to the states have shifted tactics and begun to employ a much more insidious strategy. Instead of pushing for the outright disposal of these lands, transfer advocates like Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop are attempting to undermine the landmark laws that provide oversight of extractive industries — especially oil and gas — on public lands.

In late 2016, Bishop declared, “I would be happy to invalidate the Endangered Species Act.” In 2017, other politicians publicly agreed with him, and there were more than 70 legislative attacks on the law,which Congress overwhelmingly approved in 1973.

Meanwhile, land-transfer advocates, with support from President Donald Trump and officials like Secretary Zinke, have pursued their end goal of opening up protected public lands while still maintaining federal management.

On the territory lopped off from the two reduced monuments in Utah, drilling for oil and gas and mining for minerals such as uranium willnow be allowed in places where such extractive industries were previously banned. Other activities, like motorized recreation, can be allowed in monuments but face far less scrutiny in non-protected BLM and Forest Service tracts.

Meanwhile, last September, Secretary Zinke allowed a two-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing in prime sage grouse habitat to expire. Though the land will remain under the management of the BLM, its ability to support imperiled species will undoubtedly decline as new extractive leases are developed.

Congress has also opened the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. While it is true that the land will remain in “public hands,” the change is disastrous ecologically. The area, which supports 200 species of migratory birds, all three species of North American bears, and one of the last great caribou herds,stands to be devastated.

The fight for public lands isn’t just about keeping them public. Public lands need protection to ensure that they support healthy forests, healthy watersheds and biodiversity. We must protect these lands from bioterrorism and mismanagement because millions of Americans depend on these ecosystems for survival. 

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