Seizure of federal building in Oregon is the product of a dangerous political movement to privatize our public lands
This op-ed is was first published Jan. 8, 2016 in The Hill.
It would be easy to dismiss the armed standoff near Burns, Ore., as simply the work
of fringe, anti-government fanatics. But what’s happening there is a logical extension of the anti-federal government, anti-public land movement that’s been growing for years in the West and, more recently, in Congress. The tactics may differ but the underlying notion is the same: dismantling our public lands—places like national forests — in favor of a system that prizes profits over conservation.
For several years, there’s been a concerted effort in Congress — which has gained some steam with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, at the helm of the House Natural Resources Committee — to hand federal land over to the states. The inevitable result, would be opening up these lands for more logging, mining, grazing, fossil fuel development and anything else that cuts a profit for a few (and ignores the natural value for many).
While people like Bishop and several Republican presidential candidates have rightly condemned the dangerous tactics of those in the Oregon standoff, they can’t distance themselves from the movement that’s been pushing to “give back” or “transfer” federal lands to the states.
Their very concept is premised on a serious flaw. America’s federal public lands — our national forests, national parks and the Bureau of Land Management’s grasslands, sagebrush steppe and deserts — never belonged to the states to begin with. When Western states entered into the compact of statehood with the United States, in exchange for receiving a very large amount of federal public land among other stipulations, they agreed to forever disclaim all right and title to those federal public lands.
As to transferring federal public lands to Western states, that would be tantamount to U.S. taxpayers handing over $1 trillion worth of land and assets. Assuming a conservative value of $1,500 per acre, multiply that by the total federal public lands of 674 million acres = $1.0 trillion at fair market value. Importantly, that figure doesn’t begin to account for the incalculable value of watersheds and clean water (our national forests produce half of the water in the West), wildlife habitat, carbon stored in soils, plants and trees, flood control, and recreation and tourism revenue.
Make no mistake, if our federal public lands were given to the states the intent is to privatize and sell to the highest bidder America’s natural legacy. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, as well as the likes of Bishop and others, intend to turn these irreplaceable lands over to those who view them only as sources of profit for mining, logging, grazing and burning fossil fuels.
The states would have to privatize these lands, not only because they want the money, but also because they can’t afford to manage them. The fact is the federal government provides very large subsidies to the livestock industry, timber, mining and fossil fuels. The very reason that the national forests came into being was to protect lands and watersheds from robber barons who were stripping the West of its natural resources. The very reason we have laws today that govern federal public lands was to turn the tide against extractive industries and their rapacious appetite for oil, gas, minerals, grass and timber while laying waste our forests, rivers deserts, grasslands and tundra.
The recently occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, for example, is a critically important area for many unique species of birds that frequent the Pacific Flyway. Some 47 million birdwatchers in this country spend $40 billion a year. Those at the center of the controversy in Oregon, including the Bundy and Hammond families, have used public lands to graze their livestock. Nationally, public lands grazing generated $125 million less than what the federal government spent on the program in 2014, according to a report by natural resource economists commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity. Federal grazing fees are 93 percent less than fees charged for non-irrigated Western private grazing, or just $1.69 per animal per month for each cow and calf that grazes the public land (it costs more to feed a house cat).
We all own these public lands and we should all have a say in how they’re managed. What’s happening in Oregon is deplorable — armed seizure of a federal building to bully the government and threaten violence — but there’s a larger movement here in D.C. that, for the future of our public lands, is deeply troubling as well. Once you privatize our irreplaceable natural heritage, there’s no going back.