As the Feb. 5 “Who Will Manage the Future of Our Public Lands?” forum in Flagstaff made clear, the desire for a hostile takeover of America’s public lands, whether by armed men or legislative fiat, is still very much alive. It isn’t just the armed thugs who took over the wildlife refuge in Oregon. Time and again, we’ve seen right-wing politicians try to seize control of federal forests, deserts and other lands and give them over to those who see them only as sources of profit – places to be logged, mined, grazed and bulldozed.
It’s time for the rest of us – those who value these public lands for hiking, camping, wildlife and cultural heritage – to stand up and say enough. Enough of politicians and shady organizations who stoke the fires of discontent and foment armed rebellion in our Western communities. Enough fictitious proclamations about the constitutionality of the federal government’s ownership of public land. Enough expenditures of states’ time and taxpayer money pursuing legislation to deprive us of our natural heritage.
The arrest and indictment of 16 armed militants and the continuing illegal occupation of a publicly owned facility at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon are an extreme example of a more subtle, yet perhaps more dangerous, attempt by extremist lawmakers to steal our public lands. Efforts to privatize federal lands for the benefit of campaign contributors must be beaten back at the local level as well as in Congress.
Our public lands in Arizona are held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of all Americans. They are a uniquely American testament to our shared values of democracy and freedom. They are as diverse as the people who make up this country and they are one of the primary reasons why so many of us choose to live in the West. Those who wish to seize public lands by any means, whether armed with assault rifles or waving a false interpretation of the Constitution, represent a tiny fraction of American public sentiment.
The effort to steal our public lands, championed in Congress by the likes of Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), is alive and well right here in Arizona, where a legislative study committee is currently trying to find ways to grab our public lands. If they’re successful, it could mean that areas currently off-limits to motorized vehicles, drilling and mining, thanks to federal protection, could be converted to those purposes.
And what happens if the state takes over federal lands. Can Arizona afford the responsibility for millions of acres of national forests? Any limited economic gain to be had by an individual state from exploiting public lands for timber, mining or livestock is vastly outweighed by the billion-dollar nightmare it’s sure to become as the reality of cleaning up thousands of abandoned mines, maintaining and repairing thousands of miles of roads and recreational sites and managing public use of these large landscapes comes into clear focus.
But there are larger issues at play. I get that people have different ideas about the purpose of public lands but one thing is clear: As a speaker from the U.S. Forest Service indicated at Friday’s forum, the goal of public ownership is not to maximize revenue, it is about preserving these areas for all.
Most of us living here in the West deeply value these lands. The most recent Colorado College “State of the Rockies” report found that 65 percent of Arizonans oppose these state land grabs. And I am certain that millions of Americans who visit the Grand Canyon and Arizona’s dozens of other parks, national monuments and national forests each year don’t support them either.
It doesn’t take an illegal armed insurrection for us to know that there are too many elected officials bent on stealing our lands. It’s time that the silent majority who cherish our public lands stand up and put an end to this unnecessary, misguided and dangerous charade before more lives or our precious public places are lost.