The Great Land Swindle

Things are changing quickly in the world of public lands conservation. Last month, a passionate group of hunters and anglers rallied outside the Colorado Capitol. This was not some type of get-rid-of-public land libertarian protest. The fairly conservative group was not protesting against crazy liberal treehuggers or for the government to get out of its life. These protestors actually want the federal government to stay involved in Colorado, continuing to manage our public lands, and they were angry that Colorado legislators are floating bills that would move control of federal land over the state, and even some bills that would sell off public lands forever.

Sound crazy? Well consider this: One of our neighboring states has already done it. Utah House Bill 148 took effect on December 31, 2014, and calls for the federal government to transfer 31.2 million acres of public lands, not including designated wilderness areas, national monuments or national parks, to the state. The bill has no teeth—it does not call for the use of force or closures in order for Utah to wrest control of these lands, but it is very disturbing to those of us who love our wild places. Once the state gets hold of these resources, it will manage them for only one purpose—making cash. It has no choice.

Now, efficient government management and making the best use of taxpayer dollars are certainly very worthy causes, ones that conservatives and conservationists actually agree upon. The problem is state control is not the best way to efficiently look after and make money off these lands. And it is not the best way to maximize an even more important asset, value. Utah also passed House Bill 142 which called for a study and economic analysis that would tell the state just how much it would cost to manage these 31.2 million acres currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. The resultant 784-page report is not promising for those who think the state is a more efficient operation than the feds. While it would be conceivably possible to foot the bill, it all relies on one big, worrisome variable, the price of oil. And that is the root of the problem.

Keeping up with the price tag of management would require drilling more wells and opening up these lands to industry, while closing them off to recreation. Lands might indeed need to be sold into private hands to pay the bills. It’s ironic that lawmakers who support these measures claim that federal land managers and conservation laws are locking the land away from the public. State control, and more profit-driven uses, would actually do just that, putting up fences and gates to keep out hunters, bikers and hikers while the big machines haul in cash.

The real point is that these lands are not simply places to turn a short-term profit for a select few. Their value is far greater both on an economic level (think of how many companies and workers come West for these wild places) and on a deeper, even spiritual level (think of why you go to these places). When state lawmakers can prove that they see these greater values in public lands, rather than introducing bills that on the outside sound populist, but in reality are swindles meant to sell our lands to a very few, then perhaps we can find a way to not just manage them at the state level, but treasure them.

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