Looking out on an impressive public lands vista may make you feel like a king, but the argument that America’s public lands are akin to England’s “royal forests” is completely ridiculous
On June 29, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) addressed a conservative public policy think tank with an impassioned speech about the tyranny of the federal government and three pieces of legislation aimed at selling off and developing America’s public lands.
In this monologue, Lee equated modern-day public lands in America to feudal England’s “royal forests,” which provided game and amusement for the landed gentry while the peasants starved. In Lee’s mind, eastern elites are today’s landed gentry and the peasants are those living in states with abundant public land.
Perhaps Senator Lee should study the evolution of and philosophy behind America’s public lands system, which was created to be the exact opposite of England’s.
Theodore Roosevelt felt that all Americans should have the chance to prove themselves in the wild—as he had done after the death of his wife and his mother—and enjoy the resources that the forests, rivers, mountains, and prairies could provide. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation comes from Roosevelt’s vision and continues to govern wildlife management by several key tenets, with the most fundamental being that our fish and wildlife belong to all Americans—not governments, private landowners, or corporations—and they must be managed in a way that sustains fish and wildlife populations in perpetuity.
Each citizen has an opportunity, under the law, to hunt and fish in the United States, and we have more than 600 million acres of public lands, open to everyone, to do just that. Yet, Senator Lee laments that public lands have somehow become the play areas for a select few.
The facts offer a different story.
In Utah last year, more than 200,000 residents bought hunting licenses and the overwhelming majority of those people hunted on public lands in the state. Only about 30,000 non-resident hunting licenses were sold.
It hardly seems that Utahans are being kept from enjoying the public lands in Utah.
To the contrary, multiple studies across the West (here’s one) have shown that communities located close to public lands are more prosperous than those without public land access. Almost 75 percent of hunting in the West takes place on public lands. And, obviously, public lands are available to Americans for more than just hunting and fishing.
This is why our public lands support and are managed for multiple uses—from hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation opportunities to logging, energy development, and grazing. Some areas are managed as wilderness or monuments, while others are best suited for development.
This is what was intended by Roosevelt, Pinchot, and other conservation luminaries, and it is a system that has worked well. Yes, we can have debates about the management of certain parcels, but that debate is a luxury, one that does not occur in England or in U.S. states without extensive public lands.
The three bills that Sen. Lee outlined are all designed to transfer, sell off, and/or industrialize the nation’s public lands, and as usual, the argument is cloaked in the rhetoric of “states’ rights” and “economic opportunity.”
Will some people get rich if Utah’s public lands are developed? Absolutely. But at what cost?
Yes, we can have debates about the management of certain parcels of public land, but that debate is a luxury, one that does not occur in England or in U.S. states without extensive public lands.
If Lee were to succeed, the public lands that all Americans enjoy today for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, off-road vehicle riding, and myriad other uses will certainly be off-limits. Those who were once able to challenge themselves, find restorative solitude, or make lifelong memories with family and friends in what Lee calls “land that is just sitting there, unused” will be greeted by industrial development or locked gates.
Senator Lee is correct that there are times when public lands in or near urban areas are best used for other purposes, such as affordable housing or schools. But federal law expressly permits those types of properties to be sold off with the proceeds benefiting conservation and access elsewhere. In fact, this is fresh in the minds of lawmakers, who reauthorized the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act in the omnibus spending bill in March 2018.
America’s hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts remember well when former Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced HR 621, which would have disposed of 3.3 million acres of public lands to help balance the budget, in 2017. Our community’s outcry against this provision was so strong that Rep. Chaffetz took to Instagram dressed in camo to announce that he was withdrawing his bill—and then he withdrew from Congress.
Perhaps Senator Lee needs to be reminded how much all Americans care about their public lands. He should certainly experience them firsthand and discover for himself what Theodore Roosevelt found out more than a century ago—that the privilege of access for all to wide open spaces is actually fundamental to what it is to be an American.
We are not “greedy kings” for wanting to keep our public lands public.
Send that message to your lawmakers now: Sign the petition at sportsmensaccess.org.
Then send the link to a friend who relies on public land for his or her hunting or fishing access. We have been here before and, united for public lands, we won.
Top photo by Bob Wick via flickr.