The War on Public Lands

Dan Ashe is at war. Although the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may bristle at the semantics of that reality, the evidence is in his opposition.

The ongoing battle for control of America’s public lands reached a radical new echelon last winter when a mob of armed militants seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon, a unit that falls under Ashe’s jurisdiction. Even as an inherent optimist, Ashe had difficulty suppressing his outrage over the volitaile occupation.

“I was angry. I was angry because Ammon Bundy and his cohorts were walking around the community, going to the Safeway and buying supplies and going to church on Sunday, and I wanted them in jail,” Ashe said in July. “But I tip my hat to the FBI. Their whole strategy was to ignore them. They said, ‘They’re way out there at the refuge, and we know that means a lot to you, but they’re isolated and they can’t really do any damage. We’re just going to ignore them and all the press is going to go away and they’re going to get frustrated.’ And they were right.

“It was tragic that LaVoy Finicum was killed, but when you think about the loss of life that could have occurred, it could have ended a lot worse.”

A Long Campaign

On the grand scale, of course, nothing has ended. And Ashe recognizes that all too well.

Beyond the cascade of death threats to Oregon State Troopers, FBI and federal officials in retaliation to Finicum’s death (he was shot by state police when he ran a road block), beyond the blow to employee morale that left half the Malheur NWF workforce wanting to leave, and beyond even William Keebler’s thwarted attempt to blow up a BLM facility near Finicum’s grazing allotment in northwest Arizona, this most explosive manifestation of the public lands takeover effort to date is just another in a series of historic attempts to wrestle away the wild, open spaces initially set aside for the benefit and use of all Americans.

“This is an ideology and they are waging a campaign. They know what they’re doing,” Ashe says. “It’s closely related to this effort to divest millions of acres from the federal estate. And it’s not about giving it to the states so the states can be better managers of a recreational resource. It’s about converting that land and that resource to capital, to profit. So the [outdoors and conservation] community needs to recognize that. We have to get smarter. We have to have a better strategy than they have. Because right now, they’re winning. They’re doing what the conservation community used to do well—they’re putting together a long ground game, and they are changing the minds of voters on this issue. We have to get back to those basics. We have to be better at it than they are.”

Up for Grabs: If spots like cedar mesa came under state control, Utah would have to rely on volatile oil prices staying very high to be able to foot the bill, according to a 784-page report mandated by house bill 142 passed by the state legislature when utah claimed takeover of federal lands in 2014. The lands could be sold off to make ends meet. Photo by Doug Schnitzpahn


It does remain rare to see the fight over America’s public lands played out so vividly on the ground. The political arena has historically served as the battleground for well-funded special interest groups orchestrating attempts to usurp millions of acres of primarily Western lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and USFWS.

Groups like the American Lands Council, run by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory and Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, and the congressional Federal Land Action Group created by U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and fellow Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, have been chipping away at more than a century of responsible American stewardship with a combination of legislation attempts and erosion of public support by confusing the issue for voters.

Echoing the voices of militants in Oregon, Bishop says his group is working to “return these lands back to the rightful owners”—by taking them away from the American people.

In July, the Republican National Committee upped the ante by approving a national party platform that endorses the disposal of federal public lands, saying, “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands.”

The ongoing battle for control of America’s public lands reached a radical new echelon last winter when a mob of armed militants led by Amon Bundy seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The Counter Attack

Such policies, combined with the barrage of Republican-sponsored bills or amendments attempting to undercut protections for public lands in recent years, make it difficult not to frame this as a partisan issue. It isn’t entirely. Despite the exclusive support of Republican lawmakers, voters from the party of Teddy Roosevelt have traditionally seen eye-to-eye with Democrats in their opposition to public land transfers. Public opinion in the West and nationwide has shown overwhelming support for conservation of national parks and public lands through the years, along with high opinions of federal land management agencies.

Without a sustained counter-attack, however, folks like Ashe worry that the physical representation of more than 200 years of American democracy could disappear in a blink. And Republican land managers like Jim Caswell, Director of the BLM for eight years under George W. Bush and a former National Forest supervisor in Idaho, agree.

“I said, ‘It will never happen,’ for a long time, but now I’m not so sure,” Caswell says of the takeover attempts. “We’ve lost our public support. We’ve lost our constituency. People do not go to battle for us anymore.”

More likely, that constituency has merely been misplaced as much of the voting public fails to recognize just what’s at stake. The 640 million acres of federally administered lands owned by the people, for the people, are managed for a variety of uses, ranging from livestock grazing and resource extraction to outdoor recreational opportunities like camping, hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, boating, skiing—even events like the Burning Man festival.

What’s at Stake

According to Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), America’s public lands serve as the foundation of a $646 billion annual outdoor recreation economy, with 6.1 million Americans relying on the outdoor industry for employment. More than $80 million in annual tax revenue is spread among communities across the country, including about $1 million in northern Nevada during the weeklong Burning Man. That event’s economic ripple measured between $55-60 million in 2015.

By contrast, state-owned lands in the West are constitutionally bound to the sole purpose of funding specific beneficiaries. State trust lands are not managed to benefit the general public, meaning outdoor recreation typically is far more restricted. In Colorado, more than 80 percent of state trust lands are closed even to routine recreation like camping and fishing.

Beyond income generated through timber sales and leases for grazing, farming and mining, the proven moneymaker is outright sale of state land. Idaho, for example, has sold off more than 1.7 million acres (41 percent) of the 4.2 million given to it by Congress at statehood. That’s an area nearly the size of the Sawtooth National Forest liquidated and passed on to big corporations and other private interests.

Economic analysis by multiple western universities shows that the financial burden placed on states attempting to manage millions more acres of land transferred from federal agencies is likely to result in significant deficits, demanding more selloffs. Rest assured, it won’t be a group of disgruntled cowboys buying up that property—or even wilderness-adverse mountain bikers, for that matter. But like the rest of America, they’ve all got skin in the game.

“If we lose our public lands heritage, we’ve lost a lot for a long, long time,” Caswell says. “We have to keep them public. They are worth fighting for.”

Scott Willoughby is the former Outdoors Editor for The Denver Post. His coverage of issues including outdoor recreation, land management and conservation in the West spans more than 20 years.

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