We the people have 650 million acres of federally managed public lands in this country waiting for us to discover or rediscover. We possess endless potential to catch fish alongside hundreds of thousands of acres to hunt, camp, rest, recharge, be silent for a vista or for a bear rumbling up a river. Public lands are our birthright indeed, always there for whenever we might get there.
Congress is considering bills which aim to “transfer” some federally held lands, our lands, to the states. New England has fewer public holdings that the west, but we are blessed with several wonderful spaces, like Sachuset Point, Acadia, Mt. Washington and Baxter. “Transfer” is a shoddy misnomer for “sell” with a clear veneer of misdirection. Logical perhaps at first blush, especially for the small government and state’s rights folks, but if you follow the rabbit hole, you’ll find yourself on a budget spreadsheet. Our national parks are magnificent reminders of Nature’s power and majesty, preserved for us, never to be sold. New England has fewer public holdings that the west, but we are blessed with several wonderful spaces, like Sachuset Point, Acadia, Mt. Washington and Baxter and the sweeping reality is that state’s can’t afford to keep them open.
We need our public lands, we need know there is somewhere to go. Or maybe we don’t. Some people have no desire to head west young man, which is just as much of a right as those who are saving for a new zero degree bag. My wife’s parents parents trucked her around the country to see much of the splendor our awesome country had to offer: Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, the Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, Carlsbad, Grand Canyon, the Badlands. She’s experienced our public lands in a tent and the hard but cozy confines of a tired van. She saw our collective history while developing perspective and a love of our gorgeous landscapes. She also realized that she’s all set.
She will likely never drive back to Utah’s Bryce Canyon in a VW van or ever wade LeHardy’s Rapids for Yellowstone Cutthroats. She’s probably never going to sleep in a tent again. She’s good with woods and rivers and flocks of honking geese and on the hard coffee we praise as being fine enough for cowboys. She’s all set with sunrises 2 hours before she wants to be awake, hiking to an information kiosk overlooking a bunch of trees and driving 12 hours just to sleep in a cot and eat cereal out of a cardboard box.
Canoeing for her now means 2 cans of IPA and a bulky fashion magazine in the bow while I fish. But in twenty years, when there’s more time, she just might give into my badgering to go out west to fish or hunt or just be, after she has arranged a hotel room. That’s the natural beauty of our national parks and public lands: they have been saved for us for whenever we get there.
Who’s to say that a few hundred thousand acres of grasslands, with sweet cold trout streams winding endlessly throughout or a tremendous swath of western mountainous God’s Country where elk outnumber everything and everybody, where you can fill your canteen from a real live clean spring, where all you hear in the dark is nothing, might be “transferred” to a state with a poor financial infrastructure, then eventually sold to a corporation.
“This vista brought to you by Visa”.
Some folks in South County pack tents or campers to spend a weekend at Burlingame State Park even though it’s within a bathroom run of their house. Burlingame is state managed public lands, which means even though we have to pay to use it and allow a vehicle search for firewood fireworks and beer (who doesn’t hide a few under the grocery bags?) it’s our land to use. Public land.
Numbers support our love of the outside. 1,010,533 people visited Yellowstone National Park this past August. As a child, a family friend had framed picture of the Nez Perce Indians Chief Joseph hanging on his office wall and when he retired, Chief Joseph came to me. I’ll likely never get to pay my respects at the Nez Perce National Historic Park where he rests or see any of the associated 38 culturally important sites which sweep through Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon but 224,000 people did just last year. 5,520,736 visitors went to The Grand Canyon just last year where the El Tovar Hotel books 13 months in advance to help accommodate some of the millions of visitors each year. 857,310 saw the Badlands of South Dakota’s Badlands with it’s 244,000 acres of vertical canyon walls and gorgeous grasslands.
Numbers support our fear.
“Idaho has sold or traded 41 percent of the land it was granted at statehood, Nevada has sold off 99 percent of its original state land holdings. In total, Western states have sold 31 million acres of state lands that were given to them at statehood, an area roughly equivalent in size to the state of Louisiana”, said The Wilderness Society’s Brad Brooks in Salon Magazine. Alaska governor Bill Walker this year vetoed more than $150 million in education funding citing decreased revenues from energy pricing. The University of Wyoming system is facing $41 million in budget cuts. Our own state has proposed tolling large trucks, which we all know will lead to tolling all vehicles, to pay for failing roads and bridges.
In Puerto Rico, the PROMESA bill, crafted to assist the island’s colossal budget crisis, included a provision to “transfer” the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge’s 3,100 acres back to the island. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, supported the transfer, which makes perfect sense when you ignore the bill’s original purpose, which was to address the island’s $70 billion in debt. How would the local government pay for the park maintenance and protection? Sell some of the land. Follow the rabbit hole. Find some money. What if public lands hold mineral or petroleum deposits underneath? Maybe just a small piece of land could be “reallocated”, for the good of the hard working taxpayers of insert-state-name-here.
“Not wanting to remember, still, I can’t forget. I am dusty with these old regrets” Ray Wylie Hubbard sings.
Consider that for a moment. Letting our public lands ever be anything else would be irreversible. Lots of us want to fish in a river where an hour of rain means your truck won’t get you home until tomorrow, who want to set up camp in the shadow of pines and snow, who want…really, it doesn’t matter what we want, what matters is that we can.
You can contact your senators and representatives, sign any or all of the many internet petitions, including the Trout Unlimited effort at www.tu.org. My wife, well whether or not she ever returns to the Badlands, ever stops drying socks on my fly rod racks, or just keeps reading Cosmo in a canoe, that’s not the point. The point is those lands are ours to get to when we can and any “transfer” would be several chess moves ahead of the best pro bono public trust environmental attorney any NGO could wrangle up.
Here are 4 reasons why our public lands should always be public:
- Our public lands are not anyone’s to sell. There shouldn’t even be a number two
- As our world, electronics and patience gets smaller, we desperately need places to get away. We are the country of Lewis and Clark, the Westward Expansion and those ridiculous beaded fly fishing necklaces full of trinkets for catching 4 ounce brook trout
- My lovely wife, she’ll go west if there’s room at the El Tovar
This commentary has been brought to you by Jerry’s House of Ribs, now featuring the Glacier Park Burger.
This piece originally appeared in the Southern RI Newspapers. © 2017 todd corayer